Police have recommended charges against three Arizona high school administrators after the men were implicated in a brutal sexual assault and hazing case. All three men will continue working for the school district this year.
Since February, six athletes have accused a powerhouse football team at Chandler, Arizona’s Hamilton High School of ritualized sexual assault and hazing in their locker room. In statements to police, the alleged victims said their teammates had forcibly violated them in football initiation rituals that allegedly occurred from September 2015 until January 2017. At least three school administrators knew about the alleged hazing, investigators claim. Police have recommended charges against former Hamilton High School principal Ken James, former head football coach Steve Belles, and former athletic director Shawn Rustad, accusing the three men of allowing the sexual assaults to go unreported.
But none of the men will go on leave, their school district announced Friday. Instead, they’ll move to new posts, while the criminal investigation continues to rock the district.
The alleged sexual assaults were hardly a secret, a whistleblower told police earlier this year.
In February, Hamilton High School administrators received an email from a person alleging a hazing ritual among Hamilton football players. The person described an alleged assault against a new varsity football player, who “was allegedly leaving the shower when other varsity players took his towel from him, bent him over a bench," the whistleblower wrote in the email, which was released to the Arizona Republic earlier this year.
The attackers allegedly grabbed the athlete’s genitals as part of a hazing rite that "occurs regularly,” the tipster wrote. "It may be nothing, but I keep hearing it over and over.”
The email was forwarded to Ken James, the school principal. "First time I ever heard of this," James wrote a colleague minutes after receiving the email. "I will find out on Monday."But the February tip was not James’ first encounter with the rumors, police say. In November 2016, parents contacted him about alleged hazing. During a meeting with James, the parents alleged that a football player “had fingers placed in his mouth and ‘things’ in his rectum,” according to a police probable cause statement.
James took notes, but did not appear to take any action against the alleged attackers. Then, in January, James received a voicemail tip about the alleged harassment, and asked athletic director Shawn Rustad to interview four football players about the rumors, the police statement alleges. One of the football players “disclosed being held down and their clothes removed,” and two other students supported the story, according to the probable cause statement.
Police say Rustad did not tell parents about the interviews, and did not alert law enforcement of his findings, despite laws that required him to report suspected child abuse. But following James’ instructions, Rustad allegedly told head football coach Steve Belles about the alleged abuse.
None of the three men reported the alleged abuse, police say. But the case burst into the public eye in March, after police arrested six Hamilton football players on suspicion of kidnapping, sexual assault, and aggravated assault. Only one of those players, 17-year-old Nathaniel Thomas, was charged as an adult. Court records for his sexual assault and kidnapping case accuse him of being a ringleader in the attacks, allegedly put his fingers and other objects in young teammates’ anuses while other teammates filmed the assaults and posted videos to social media. Thomas denies the allegations.
Police also want the Maricopa County Attorney's Office to charge to charge James, Rustad, and Belles with child abuse and failure to comply with "duty to report'' laws.
But while the investigation continues, the three men have remained with the school district. The day after police recommended child abuse and failure-to-report charges, the district sent families letter stating that at least two of the men would remain on-campus.
“It's important to understand that no staff member has been charged and that all are presumed innocent under our system of justice,” the district noted in a July letter to parents. “While the Maricopa County Attorney’s office reviews the investigation to determine if charges will be filed, Mr. James will continue in his duties as the principal, and Mr. Belles will continue in his teaching duties.”
But just weeks into the new school year, a sixth alleged victim stepped forward, police said. Now with half a dozen people accusing the team of abuse, the district is changing its stance—slightly. On Friday, the district announced that the men would continue their employment with the district, albeit in different roles, away from the high school.
The decision, the school district said, was intended limit the “distraction” of the ongoing investigation into the school’s top administrators.
"While none of the employees have been charged, it could be some time before the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office decides how it will proceed,” the district said in a statement. “Therefore, to avoid any distraction caused by this uncertainty, the District administration and employees believe that reassignment is the best course at this time.”