An explosive high-school sexual assault scandal rocking the small town of La Vernia, Texas, widened Tuesday, with the arrest of three additional students and the filing of a federal lawsuit alleging school officials knew about criminal hazing going on in the athletic program and failed to protect student victims.
Colton Weidner, Christian “Brock” Roberts, and John Rutkowski, all 18 and members of the school’s basketball team, were released from the Wilson County Jail after they were booked on sexual assault charges on Tuesday, according to an official in the Wilson County Sheriff's Office.
According to arrest affidavits, three high school athletes—Weidner, Rutkowski, and an unnamed juvenile—overpowered and held down a struggling 15-year-old while Roberts inserted a flashlight into his rectum. The victim did not report the alleged assault to his parents at the time, but later described the attack in a videotaped interview in March at the Children’s Alliance of South Texas.
Dozens of alleged victims have come forward to authorities in the last month with claims of sexual assault, including sodomy, as part of hazing rituals practiced by La Vernia High School’s varsity athletes. A total of 13 students—six of them adults—have now been arrested and charged with sexual assault.
But the case goes beyond just students, according to a new lawsuit filed in Texas’ Western District Court on Tuesday. School coaches allegedly “sanctioned these rituals,” while other school officials “turned a blind eye toward the abuse, even after the abuse was reported to them,” according to the 19-page complaint. The school district, superintendent José Moreno, principal Kristen Martin, and coaches Brandon Layne, Richard Hinojosa, Chris Taber, Scott Grub, and Keith Barnes, are all named as co-defendants in the case. On Tuesday, Moreno released a statement noting, "the La Vernia Independent School District was made aware of a federal lawsuit via the news yesterday. We will continue working closely with the authorities as they conduct a full and thorough investigation."
John Kemmerer ‘J. K.’ Ivey, the attorney who filed Tuesday’s lawsuit on behalf of the parents of “Child Doe,” told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that the case is just the first in what he believes will be a “tidal wave” of civil suits.
“We’re just the first shot,” he said. “I would not be surprised if this was just the first of what will be many lawsuits.”
According to the lawsuit, as a 15-year-old freshman, Doe advanced to the varsity football team in the fall of 2015.
During one of his first away games, the suit alleges, three upperclassmen forced Doe face down on the locker room floor and pushed a Gatorade bottle into his anus through his shorts. The following week, everyone at school seemed to know about the attack, including a teacher, who emailed the athletic director, Brandon Layne, according to the complaint. Layne, who left the school last year after only a year of employment, allegedly talked with the varsity players about the assault. According to the complaint, Layne told the team to “Cut it out,” and instituted a requirement that a coach supervise the locker room at all times.
“You won’t be able to get a job, no girl will want to date you, and you could go to prison,” the complaint quotes Layne as saying. Layne did not return phone calls requesting comment and has not yet been served, according to court documents.
Despite the warning, and staff presence, Doe alleges in the complaint that over the next calendar year, his teammates attempted to assault him on five different occasions—most of which he was able to escape. But in August 2016, three senior varsity players overpowered him, according to the complaint. In the locker room after a shower, Doe alleges he was forced down by two of his teammates while a third sodomized him with a cardboard tube stripped from a coat hanger. The players allegedly laughed during the attack, and said, “New year, new initiation.”
The new allegations mirror other accounts of sexual assault within the athletic department. In a detailed affidavit associated with three March arrests, a 16-year-old victim reported teammates marked his graduation to the varsity football team by sodomizing him with the threaded end of a carbon-dioxide tank at a home off-campus. When the arrests began in mid-March, a mother of another victim told a local reporter: “Kids were holding them down in the locker rooms, there was a lookout at the door watching for coaches not to come. They hold them down and stick various items up their rectum… including Coke bottles, deodorant bottles, steel pipes, baseball bats, and broomsticks.”
“The school had actual knowledge,” Ivey said in an interview with The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “The principal and the head coach were notified. Their own guidelines and rules weren't followed.”
Texas state law mandates that incidents of child abuse be reported within 48 hours to the proper authorities—a requirement that Ivey said La Vernia staff failed to comply with.
Doe, whose alleged abuse started in the fall of 2015, has withdrawn from classes and is being homeschooled, Ivey said.
The lawsuit seeks damages for medical expenses, physical pain and mental anguish, as well as punitive damages. The family is also seeking to censure school district employees and force the district to develop policies that would protect students in the future.
“It’s a small town and it’s a difficult situation and these were traumatic events,” Ivey said. “I don’t think any amount of money in the world could fully and fairly compensate this child for what he’s been through.”
Earlier this month, the Texas Rangers took over the investigation from the La Vernia Police Department. Attorney General Ken Paxton is now overseeing the criminal cases. Neither office provided any further information following the new arrests.
The school district has also remained relatively quiet on the allegations, citing the ongoing investigation. Superintendent Jose Moreno, named in the federal lawsuit, spoke last month at a school board meeting and called for patience.
“The alleged behavior will be evaluated by the judicial system,” he said to a crowd of about 100 assembled parents. “We must have facts before we move forward. All children deserve due process and the privacy they’re entitled to.”
Inside La Vernia High School, a student who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, said the Texas Rangers have been at the school “every day,” and have set up shop in the school auditorium where they “pull kids out of class to be questioned,” the student said.
Guidance counselors have also come to each class to reintroduce themselves and offer support services, the student said.
“There’s not much learning going on around here these days,” the student said.