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It Took a Lot of Courage to Tell, They are Heroes

By Echo Menges

A devastating picture has been painted about the circumstances which led to the arrests of three juveniles at the Knox County R-1 School District on Monday, September 10, 2018.

A group of children on the fifth and sixth grade football team were allegedly singled out by a group of children on the seventh and eighth grade football team between the time the children were dismissed from school and the time they took the field for football practice.

According to reports, children were being restrained by the older players and sexually assaulted with objects, a metal bolt, a metal rod and a pipe, in front of players on both teams on multiple occasions.

Up to five children reported being sexually assaulted by three older players, and having metal objects poked at, onto or into their rectums by force over a period of time. The assaults allegedly began at the start of the football season and school year, and allegedly continued for two or more weeks inside the school district’s football field locker room while the children were unsupervised by any adult.

Children were fully clothed in football uniforms or partially clothed at the time of the alleged assaults and at least one child suffered from rectal bleeding following an altercation, according to a family member.

The alleged assaults were uncovered after a parent noticed children were wary of going into the locker room alone. A waterfall of football players’ parents started talking to each other and encouraging each other to speak to their children about what they experienced or witnessed in the field-house locker room, which led to the admittance of the assaults by victims, who were either victimized by being assaulted or victimized by witnessing the assaults, and being threatened with retribution if they told.

Parents contacted law enforcement and the school to report the allegations one day prior to the arrests.

“They told us they didn’t tell because they didn’t want anyone to think they were gay because of what happened to them,” said a parent of a victim. “I think they were fearful of what the boys might do again.”

Students enrolled at the district began learning limited details about the sexual assaults the day of the arrests, from schoolmates with first to third hand information, as students were being called out of class to be questioned by Sheriff Robert Becker, Knox County Juvenile Officer Michelle Peavler and Knox County Middle School Principal Nancy Goodwin in the presence of their parents.

“It took a lot of courage for these kids to tell what happened inside that locker room. They should be treated like what they are – heroes,” said a parent with a child on the younger team. “They are the ones that put a stop to it.”

Law enforcement and school officials have remained tight lipped and refused to officially release information involving the criminal cases and possible disciplinary actions taken against the alleged perpetrators. They have told members of the press and public that juvenile cases are closed to the public and school policy, state and federal law limit them from speaking publicly on student matters.

News first broke after Knox County Sheriff Robert Becker told The Edina Sentinel three juveniles were arrested for Class C felony assault in the second degree when they were taken into custody at the district the day following the arrests. The charges were decided by the Second Circuit Juvenile Office, which is customary in criminal cases involving juveniles of a certain age, according to the Sheriff and a Juvenile Office spokesperson.

Later the same week, the charges were downgraded to Class E felony harassment in the first degree, which further ignited a growing firestorm of backlash among Knox County residents, many of whom were aware of the locker room incidents by way of first, second and third hand accounts, which swirled throughout the community and was disbursed by family, friends, schoolmates and others.

Where Were the Adults? Why Were the Teams Alone Together?

It is clear that as soon as adults were made aware of the alleged sexual assaults, they went into action. Parents of players quickly organized, and law enforcement and school officials were told. The investigation began and quickly yielded immediate arrests, which was a direct result of the school district working with families of the victims and accused, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the Second Circuit Juvenile Office.

It is not clear whose responsibility it was to supervise the children in the locker room or why the two teams were allowed to be alone together.

The perfect storm occurred in the lull between the end of the school day at 3:10 p.m. and the beginning of football practice for both teams, which began roughly between 3:30 and 4:00 p.m. on practice days. The teams reportedly practiced together up to four times per week. In the past, the teams practiced at different times. This is the first school year they practiced and were left alone at the same time, according to parents with children on the younger team.

In previous years, the fifth and sixth grade team practiced later in the day and came to practice dressed out and ready to take the field with no need to use the football field-house locker room. That team is organized by the Booster Club and not the school district. Volunteer unpaid coaches were not told to supervise the children in the locker room and met the children on the field for practice, according to a parent with a child on the team.

The seventh and eighth grade team is a district sanctioned team. Their coach, as an employee of the district, was tasked with supervising the team, according to the 2018-19 KCR-1 Coaches Handbook.

It is not clear if an administrator or the school board gave permission for the teams to use the locker room together. It is not clear if anyone at the district is tasked with overseeing the coaches and seeing the guidelines in the handbook are followed.

Mounting Reports of Trauma and Alleged Conflicts of Interests

Immediately, after news of the arrests broke, a spectrum of upset and concerned Knox County residents took to the social network Facebook and began reporting their children were feeling unsafe at school and being traumatized by learning the details of the assaults from their schoolmates, and others from Knox County and beyond voiced their disdain and disgust the news about the arrests was published at all.

Several parents and family members publicly reported contacting the school to find out how the district was addressing the issue with the rest of the student body, asking for information about the details, which led to the arrests, and what the district was doing to address the issue.

Knox County’s only news organization, The Edina Sentinel, was inundated with people wanting to know more, reporting allegations, reporting long-term bullying at the district and reporting possible conflicts of interests.

The Knox County R-1 School District Superintendent Andy Turgeon told The Edina Sentinel early on, teachers were paying close attention to the students and administrators were communicating with teachers about any concerns and, in the absence of the regular counselor, the elementary school counselor was sent around to the classrooms of all grade levels to introduce herself and tell students she was available to talk if needed.

The Superintendent reported reaching out to parents and asking if their children were okay and being told by parents their children were “fine” and the staff had counseling included in their insurance policies and was available to them if they needed it. The Superintendent also reported being flooded with phone calls, emails and text messages from people in support of the district, to say they were thinking about them and to positively encourage them.

In response, an in-depth interview with local professional counselor Melissa McCauley was published online and in print by The Edina Sentinel to help families, school staff and students deal with any trauma they experienced by either being involved in the assaults or learning about the assaults, which might be the most important piece of journalism this news organization published early on.

McCauley was eventually invited to come into the district to observe the students on Friday, September 14. McCauley did not report being used by the district to speak to children or staff.

“They should have brought in outside counselors. There are conflicts of interests and the kids won’t talk to them,” said a family member of an alleged victim. “I know they’re telling kids at school not to talk about it. What if there are other victims out there? What is telling them not to talk about it saying to those kids? What is it saying to the kids who had to witness it?”

“I’ve always told my child they could tell me anything. I’ve always thought if something like this was going on he would come to us. But he didn’t. We are devastated our child had to go through this and he had to suffer in silence for so long. We are devastated he didn’t come talk to us because he was afraid the same thing would happen to him,” said a parent of a child on the younger team.

The Genesis of Keeping it Quiet and the Sanitizing of Words

According to the parent of a victim, the other children in the room did not report the incidents sooner because they were told, “If anyone ever told anything – they would make their lives hell at practice and at school.”

Students in the high school and middle school reported being told “don’t talk about that” and “you’re not allowed to talk about that” by school staff members as early as Tuesday, September 11, just one day after the arrests. They also reported only being able to talk about it with their friends in secret and that no conversations about the issue were being led by adults at the district.

“We still talk about it. That’s all we talk about. We talked about it all day every day,” said one Knox County Middle School Student four days after the arrests.

“If counselors came in and started talking to us about it – I would have talked to them,” said a Knox County High School student four days after the arrests.

Three weeks later, the same students reported most of the talk among the students had died down.

In contrast to children being told not to talk about the assaults, school leaders were pushing students to say something if they see something, and to tell an adult if they saw someone or were themselves being bullied.

“I want you to remember this. If you see something. If you hear something – you’re going to say something, right,” said KCR-1 Superintendent Andy Turgeon during an elementary school assembly in the high school gymnasium. The assembly was focused on bullying education and presented by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. It was offered in two sessions to every student in the district on Tuesday, September 25. The assembly was planned in response to the incidents that led to the arrests and it began being organized the first week following the arrests.

The district also released a statement condemning bullying, hazing and harassment online on September 12, which was one day before news broke about the charges against the alleged perpetrators being reduced to felony harassment by the Juvenile Office.

The Knox County Sheriff quickly followed with a statement asking the community to “be patient” and to refrain from spreading “exaggerated stories of what happened” the following day.

Official sources worked diligently to send their messages to the public without being able to say what had happened and the community struggled to find answers when the same officials refused to talk about it on the record.

In contrast, a parent of an alleged victim told The Edina Sentinel people should stop using sanitized words fed to the community by the district and law enforcement like bullying, harassment and hazing – and start using words like sexual assault “because that’s what it was.”

“They should have had a special school board meeting for the victims’ parents with the school board – just to let us know that they are trying to work with us – that they are concerned for our kids,” said a parent of an alleged victim regarding administrators. “No one from the school called me any time during all of this. The coach, Craig Miller, was the only person who has taken them time to talk to us and tell us how sorry he was that any of this happened.”

Over the course of the investigation by the school district and law enforcement limitations contributed to their inability to release information about what allegedly happened in the field-house locker room and how and if the district was dealing with staffing concerns. Both cited legal limitations and refused to speak to members of the community or the press about specific incidents.

Members of the school board and the Superintendent met with a few concerned parents in private, prior to the school board meeting on September 25, but parents who wanted to voice their concerns in public during the meeting were not allowed to. Instead, a censored letter was read by School Board President Matt Reel, during the meeting, which the board did not respond to.

Journalists from various news organizations based outside Knox County had little to no cooperation from law enforcement and the school district. The Edina Sentinel fared better, which is likely the result of being based inside the community.

Going Forward and Changes at the School District

Community leaders have stepped forward to try to help the community though the ordeal. Families on both sides of the issue, some of them affected greatly, have been rallied around in many cases.

Parents have voiced their concerns that school bullying needs to be addressed, and continue to voice concerns about the district’s inability to communicate with them when issues arise at the school.

Members of the clergy have stepped up to counsel parishioners, bring in an outside counselor, host a community prayer meeting, encourage community-building events and show support at the September school board meeting. Those efforts are expected to continue.

The Knox County Health Department has publicized a community workshop and revised the programming to be more in line with what the community is currently experiencing. Parents and family members will be given tools to talk to children and a focus on “touching”, and body defense is being highlighted. That workshop is scheduled for October 17 and will be held at the Knox County Community Center. It is free and open to the public and The Edina Sentinel has agreed to offer a live stream of the program to help increase public participation.

The school district has made changes to ensure students are supervised. The fifth and sixth grade football team’s practice time has been changed back to the previous year’s schedule. They practice after the seventh and eighth grade team and are expected to arrive at practice dressed out. They no longer use the football field-house locker room, according to a parent with a player on the team and the district Superintendent.

The seventh and eighth grade football team coach has resigned, according to the September closed meeting minutes of the KCR-1 School Board. The team is required to wait in the cafeteria for a coach to arrive between the time classes are dismissed and the start of football practice. They are no longer unsupervised in the football field-house locker room, according to the Superintendent.

What Do You Want Your Child to Take Away from This Experience?

“To treat people with respect,” said a parent of a victim. “I want him to treat people the way he wants to be treated.”

(Information in this story was gathered from students, family members of victims and a source with knowledge of the case. The Edina Sentinel has agreed to keep their identities confidential.)