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June 29, 2017

Chester County D.A. rips Conestoga football supporters who deny player hazing

Law Enforcement Hazing
Conestoga High School. Google Maps/Street View

Conestoga High School.

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan had a strong – and long – message on Thursday for Conestoga High School football supporters who deny the "No Gay Thursday" hazing scandal existed.

Hogan insisted the scandal – and the gruesome incident that prompted its exposure – did in fact happen, in an unusual six-page letter released by his office. The letter was approved by a county judge.

In January, three former football players pleaded guilty to harassment for their roles in restraining a teammate and allegedly jamming a broomstick up his rectum in October 2015. 

But according to the district attorney, "a small and very vocal minority" of Conestoga football supporters continue to "misrepresent and distort" the hazing incidents involving the football team. 

"There have been factual misrepresentations, victim blaming and shaming, and a culture of denial. All of this conduct sends a message that victims should not report crimes and cases should not be prosecuted, which are very dangerous messages."

To counter that distortion, the district attorney asked for and received court permission to release sensitive details of its investigation, including the hazing victim's role in a previous sexting scandal and an alleged attempt to pressure the victim into recanting his allegations on video. 

The letter also explained why prosecutors did not file sexual assault charges.

The broomstick incident occurred as part of a hazing ritual, dubbed "No Gay Thursday," in which older players took actions against younger teammates that would typically be considered "gay." 

These acts included dropping genitals onto the heads of teammates, making younger teammates clean the locker room in their underwear, "grinding" on other players' legs and engage in a practice known as “vortexing,” or sneaking behind another player and placing fingers into an intimate area. 

The letter was signed by District Attorney Tom Hogan, First Assistant District Attorney Michael Noone, Chief of Detectives Kevin Dykes and Lieutenant of Detectives Michael McGinnis. 

Some football loyalists have not only denied that "No Gay Thursday" ever existed, but also claimed the broomstick incident never occurred, according to Hogan. Others chalked it up to "boys being boys" or noted the victim was not well-liked.

The D.A.'s office refuted those claims in its letter.

"We pointed out: (1) this went way beyond "boys being boys"; (2) blaming the victim was inappropriate, and the fact that the players did not like him was evidence of motive; and (3) there were independent witnesses."

Investigators interviewed 38 players, students and coaches after the victim's father alerted school administrators that his son had been subjected to months of hazing, including the broomstick incident.

Multiple players confirmed the broomstick incident to investigators, though the accused players – all seniors at the time – either did not speak with investigators or denied wrongdoing.

The players and their lawyers were given notice of the victim's claims and the corroborating evidence, prosecutors noted in the letter.

"The defense was given every opportunity, both then and at other times, to admit that the incident with the broomstick occurred, but the players did not know if the broom penetrated the victim's rectum or never meant that to happen. Under all of the circumstances in this case, the entire incident could have been resolved then and there, with the same charges that the juveniles eventually pled to. The defense declined."

At the request of the victim, prosecutors declined to charge the three players with a felony sex crime. The victim, then a freshman, had been accused of being involved in a sexting scandal earlier that year.

"The victim and his family, having been through the juvenile system and aware of the nature of the case, stated a strong preference for ... a charge of misdemeanors and summaries," the letter reads.

The Tredyffrin-Easttown School District expelled the victim due to his involvement in the sexting case. The three senior players were suspended, but not expelled.

Additionally, the district unsuccessfully sued the victim, claiming he did not live in the district and owed it more than $10,000. Instead, the district was ordered to pay for his education at a different school.

As the hazing case awaited trial, another football player confronted the victim on a train. Recording their interaction on video, the player accused the victim of threatening the future of the three accused players. 

The player appeared to pressure the victim into recanting his accusations, prosecutors alleged. But the victim did not.

Prosecutors claimed the video was evidence of a "stop snitching" culture that exists not only in Conestoga, but elsewhere.

"It is a concerted attempt by individuals or a community to derail the criminal justice process. Any kid caught alone and by surprise might blurt out anything when confronted by defendants' friends. In this case, the recording loses steam when the victim goes back to saying that the incident happened." 

The D.A.'s Office concluded its letter by stating its belief that all parties – including the victim, for his role in the sexting scandal – have been punished appropriately. 

"All of their charges were kept in the juvenile system," their letter states. "Having accepted responsibility, they all deserve to be left in peace to continue with their lives." 

Read the district attorney's full letter here