Elk River football team suspended over hazing incidentby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio,
Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The Elk River High School football program has been suspended as school officials investigate a hazing incident.
The school district is having a lawyer conduct an investigation into the allegations, and the Elk River Police Department is also involved, school district spokesman Casey Mahon said.
"This is extremely serious," Mahon said. "We need to make sure that students are safe in our schools."
Mahon and other school officials declined to release details about the nature of the alleged incident, but it doesn't appear any players sustained physical injuries.
Superintendent Mark Bezek's decision to suspend the varsity football program by canceling all practices and scrimmages came Wednesday, after a parent notified the school about the alleged incident. Bezek did not, however, immediately suspend any individual students.
After hearing from the parent, school officials interviewed some 50 members of the football team, Mahon said.
"Through this interview process, it became evident that this appeared to be larger than a potential isolated incident," he said.
The allegations were serious enough to get the police involved, and school officials decided it would also be in the district's best interest to have a third party conduct the investigation, which will look at the entire program -- including the coaches.
School officials held a meeting Wednesday night with parents about the suspension of the team. About 200 people attended, Mahon said.
Bezek said in a written statement to the school community that the district is taking the allegations seriously.
"I am shocked and dismayed by these allegations," Bezek said.
School Board Chair Sue Farber said the investigation could be finished Friday.
Elk River Police Capt. Robert Kluntz said his department is assisting with the investigation.
"They wanted police involved right away," Kluntz said. "What we're trying to do right now is just to identify who the victims are and if they're willing to cooperate with law enforcement."
Kluntz said the investigation is in its preliminary stages, and authorities are still trying to get all the details about what happened. Kluntz said police are asking parents whose children might have been victims to come forward.
Mahon said school officials aren't aware of any hazing incidents this serious at Elk River High School in the past. He said parents and students have been cooperative so far.
"Our hope is that they're going to work with us to get this resolved so that we can move forward," Mahon said.
The football season opens next Thursday, but Mahon says the district expects the suspension will be lifted by then and the game played as scheduled. Elk River head football coach Mike Cross says he won't comment while the investigation is ongoing.
One parent of a football player who didn't want to be identified said the possibility that hazing took place has upset the community. He says he personally feels the district is doing the right thing, but adds that some parents are frustrated that the entire team is being punished for something maybe only a few players did.
There's been no indication from police or the district as to how many players might have been involved. Elk River is the eighth largest district in the state with more than 12,000 students.
Both the district and Minnesota State High School League have policies that ban hazing. The league's punishments include suspensions from games.
The league defines hazing as physical brutality like whipping or beating; activities like sleep deprivation and exposure to weather; and any activity that subjects a student to extreme mental stress.
Craig Perry with the High School League says it's up to schools to police and investigate allegations of hazing. The league, he says, is there for guidance.
"I can tell you that hazing has indeed taken place in our member schools," said Perry. "I've been contacted by schools when they have hazing incidents, but I can't go beyond that."
There have been examples of suspected hazing leading to injuries in Minnesota. A pending lawsuit in St. Louis County seeks damages and accuses coaches at Proctor High School of not stopping a ritual called a "fight circle." The suit was filed by the mother of a player who broke his leg in a "fight circle" in 2008.
- All Things Considered, 08/26/2010, 5:24 p.m.
Elizabeth Dunbar is a general assignment reporter for MPR News.