The Coaches Accused of Covering Up Sex Abuse at La Vernia High School Are Still Running Texas Teams
They stand accused of turning “a blind eye toward the abuse, even after the abuse was reported to them”—but are still running high school athletic programs in the Lone Star State.
The mass rape case that cast a shadow over the 1,200-person town of La Vernia, Texas, has transformed into a battle between the students who say that adults in the room “sanctioned” the alleged assaults, and their former coaches, many of whom are still teaching and who have claimed ignorance of the attacks.
“All of the people they admired, all of the people they looked up to have turned their backs on them when it came time to step up,” said Tim Maloney, a San Antonio-based lawyer who represents three boys who are jointly suing the school district after they say they suffered repeated assaults by their teammates on the basketball, baseball, and football teams. “That’s the most awful thing.”
The three plaintiffs graduated from high school and went on to college, but still carry the legal and emotional burden of what happened to them, said Maloney.
They are among at least 10 high-school boys who were allegedly sodomized by their friends and teammates, who used deodorant bottles, flashlights, cardboard rods, and other weapons to “initiate” younger players on to the varsity sports teams at La Vernia High School.
Thirteen students were arrested in March 2017; five of those alleged perpetrators pleaded no contest (in an acceptance of the court’s punishment but not an admission of guilt) in the case last month and were sentenced to probation—including Robert Olivarez, Jr., who was accused of holding down a 16-year-old teammate on a bed while sodomizing him with the threaded end of a carbon-dioxide tank, according to an affidavit filed in his arrest. The other four alleged assailants who were sentenced in the case were juveniles at the time of the assaults and thus have had their identities shielded from the public. Another plea hearing in the case is scheduled for Nov. 26.
Four other suspects—Alejandro Ibarra, Dustin Norman, Colton Weidner, and Christian “Brock” Roberts—were indicted by a Wilson County grand jury over the summer on the charge of engaging in organized criminal activity. All four of them are now 20 years old and have consistently denied their involvement in the alleged crimes. They each pleaded not guilty.
While the alleged perpetrators have faced charges, the coaches responsible for their students’ safety—who stand accused of at best turning “a blind eye toward the abuse, even after the abuse was reported to them” and at worst witnessing an assault and walking away—still hold coaching jobs in the state.
Two civil lawsuits filed by survivors against the school district—including a teenage basketball player who has said he was raped more than 30 times in just five months in various locations, including in the locker room and the shower at school—have been consolidated and are set for trial in February 2020.
The first suit claimed that the school’s coaches “sanctioned these rituals” and that administrators on the whole “turned a blind eye toward the abuse.” The second complaint claimed that at least one La Vernia coach witnessed and ignored two of the violent assaults that traumatized the boy, despite him “screaming and yelling as loud as he could.”
According to the second lawsuit—and a 2017 interview with mothers of two purported victims—boys who were promoted to varsity teams began showering with underwear on in hopes that it would deter their assailants. The ripped, bloodied underwear was purportedly stuffed down drains so often that it clogged the pipes in the locker room, the parents have said.
Of the five coaches who were named as defendants in the first lawsuit—Brandon Layne, Richard Hinojosa, Chris Taber, Keith Barnes, and Scott Grubb—three are currently coaching at other school districts and one is still coaching at La Vernia. Former Superintendent José Moreno and former Principal Kimberley Martin were both also named in that suit. To be clear, the coach accused of witnessing assaults was never named in any legal filing, and it is not clear if he is among those who were listed as defendants in the first lawsuit before they were consolidated.
The complaint that names the coaches was voluntarily dismissed without prejudice in July 2017, when the plaintiffs’ attorney encountered personal health issues. It was later refiled that November by a different lawyer without the coach’s names attached; the school district is now the only defendant.
Layne is now the athletic director and head football coach at Ferris Independent School District, about 20 miles south of downtown Dallas, according to the district’s website. He has said he was not aware of any allegations while teaching at La Vernia. Layne declined comment to The Daily Beast in August 2017, citing the still-open civil cases. He did not respond to requests for comment last week.
Hinojosa reportedly left La Vernia ISD in May to coach track and field at Antonian Prep in San Antonio, according to The La Vernia News. Multiple requests for comment—via phone and email—were not returned by Hinojosa or Antonian Prep this month.
Barnes was working as a football coach at McCamey Independent School District—about an hour and a half due south of Midland, Texas—as recently as August, according to The Odessa American Varsity. A Facebook account for Barnes also lists him as a teacher and coach at McCamey ISD. Neither Barnes nor administrators at McCamey ISD responded to multiple requests for comment, also via phone and email, last week.
A Facebook page apparently belonging to Grubb does not list any job positions after he left his post as interim head football coach at La Vernia ISD. He began in that post in the fall of 2016 and was assigned to a “teaching-only” position in January 2017. Grubb told News 4 San Antonio in April 2017 that he didn’t know about the allegations until they were reported in the local news.
Taber, who was hired in January 2017 to take over coaching for the La Vernia Bears, is still the director of athletics for La Vernia Independent School District. He did not respond to a request for comment last week.
Other administrators have since moved on from La Vernia, as well. For example, former Superintendent Jose Moreno, who was heavily criticized in 2017 for his handling of the scandal, resigned in November of that year. He now works as the superintendent at Robstown Independent School District, near Corpus Christi.
The amended November 2017 complaint claimed that in the fall of 2015, three upperclassmen allegedly grabbed a 15-year-old teammate, forced him onto the locker-room floor, and sodomized him using a Gatorade bottle. Weeks later, a teacher allegedly pulled the boy aside in class, telling him—in front of his friends and alleged attackers—that she was sorry it had happened, that “he wouldn’t have to worry about it,” that it would “be taken care of,” and that she sent an email about the issue to the athletic director.
The then-athletic director is not named in the suit but is identified as the same coach who later “accepted a position at Ferris ISD.” (Layne is the only former La Vernia coach who took a job at Ferris ISD in 2016.) The lawsuit alleges the athletic director told varsity football players in a meeting that he had heard about the “initiations” and that there would be consequences if they did not stop.
“You won’t be able to get a job, no girl will want to date you, and you could go to prison… cut it out,” the coach allegedly said. The lawsuit claims that the athletic director did not report the incident to authorities and “instead requested that a coach be present in the locker room at all times before practice.”
After the coach left the district, the lawsuit states, another unidentified head coach and athletic director took on the role in the fall of 2016.
When the new coach took over in August 2016, that same boy began varsity football practice. He was standing by his locker when three seniors attacked him and, while laughing, sodomized him with a cardboard tube from a coat hanger.
“New year, new initiation,” they allegedly said.
The two La Vernia mothers who spoke to The Daily Beast in 2017 have said that their sons were reluctant to confirm their assaults to authorities—despite a wealth of witnesses—because they didn’t want their coaches to lose their jobs. Several boys who came forward were called “rats” and “snitches” afterward and were worried about being perceived as disloyal.
But, Maloney said, that feeling was apparently not reciprocated.
“These same people they respected and loved and admired go on the record under oath and deny that those conversations ever happened,” he added. “They’re saying ‘Mr. Maloney, I had a conversation with them. I talked to them directly. How can they say that?’”
“The jury is going to either believe the horror story that the children went through or they’re going to believe the teachers, administrators, and the coaches,” said Maloney. “It’s a simple case.”
All the parents want, Maloney said, is accountability.
“In Texas, you have an absolute legal duty under penalty of criminal law to report,” he said. “If you fail to report, you can literally go to jail.”
Maloney added: “The burden is not actual knowledge, it’s just simply suspicion.”
And yet, in La Vernia, “What you find out is that tradition, intimidation, a lot of pressure from outside influences affect their decisions,” he added. “Imagine coming into a school where there’s a tradition of this happening over years. You can have two things go on: ‘One, I am going to stop this because this is wrong.’ Or two: ‘I will simply go along to get along.’ Unfortunately, the latter has been what we have discovered in this lawsuit.”
“I have not seen one teacher, one administrator, one coach, stand up” and admit that they were informed about, witnessed, heard, or spoke to students about the alleged assaults, he continued. The kids, meanwhile, are “quite frankly astonished” by the denials.
“There is not one kid who was assaulted who is not going to be affected by it for the rest of their lives,” he said. “There’s not a day that goes by that they don’t relive it.”
“The genuine, honest fear of walking into those locker rooms on a daily basis was thick. It’s something that will live with them. It’s not something that you just put on a shelf and forget about,” he added.
“There were many, many, many victims,” said Maloney. “The number is much higher, substantially higher than 10.”
News 4 San Antonio reported in April 2017, based on unnamed sources, that the number of victims who came forward was actually 35 and that the assault allegations go back years. Maloney was not willing to estimate the total number of purported victims, nor would he speculate about when the hazing at La Vernia became criminal in nature.
Both the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety have repeatedly declined to comment to The Daily Beast on specifics of the case, citing the ongoing investigations.
Parents, like Michelle*, are angry. About the fact that no coaches or administrators were charged. About the fact that the boys who allegedly assaulted her son will not receive jail time. About how the community has all but washed away the scandal.
“I think they got off too easy,” she said. “They should’ve been labeled as sex offenders and they should’ve gotten a little bit of jail time at least to teach them a lesson.”
Meanwhile, Michelle added, she believes the coaches, teachers, and school district should face consequences “for not protecting my son or the other boys.”
“The coaches that knew about this should have all been fired and charged. Not just the young men,” she said. “They allowed it to continue, and the kids did not feel safe or protected.”
La Vernia Independent School District said in a statement to The Daily Beast this month that it is “not in a position to provide meaningful comment on any ongoing investigations and legal proceedings or the status of any persons involved,” due to the “pendency of litigation in federal court” and “a binding confidentiality agreement committed to by all parties involved.”
“In this situation, La Vernia ISD continues to be provided with very limited information regarding the allegations, persons who may have been involved, and any legal outcomes,” the statement continued. “What the district has learned has been in the context of discovery related to the lawsuit.”
“The district remains focused on upholding the well-being of all La Vernia ISD students and staff members and ensuring that LVISD is a safe and secure place to teach and learn for everyone every day,” it said.
The La Vernia cases are shocking, and yet, similar scandals occur all over the country every year. An Associated Press investigation two years ago found at least 70 cases of high school sports-related sexual assaults over five years, starting in 2011.
In fact, in March 2017, the same month the scandal in Texas came to light, a similar case was reported at Hamilton High School in Chandler, Arizona, where at least five boys were allegedly sexually assaulted by their older teammates during “initiation” rituals aimed primarily at freshman football players, The Arizona Republic reported in 2017. Documents reportedly showed that administrators at the school, who claimed ignorance of the allegations, were aware of the sexual assaults and repeatedly failed to notify police.
In a September 2016 speech strikingly similar to the one a lawsuit claims the former athletic director gave at La Vernia, the head football coach at Hamilton allegedly “told his players not to ‘do sexual things to each other.’” (The coach’s attorney has denied that allegation in an interview with the Republic.)
Six students at Hamilton High were arrested in March 2017, and a whopping 700-page police report details the alleged assaults. In July of that year, police submitted criminal referrals against former Principal Ken James, former Athletic Director Shawn Rustad, and former Head Football Coach Steve Belles over their alleged knowledge of the abuse.
But in February 2018, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said his office ultimately decided not to file charges against them because there were not enough victims who were willing to cooperate in a case against the administrators.
“Parents place the trust of their children in the school, all the way from the principal down to the custodian,” Det. Seth Tyler, of the Chandler Police Department, told The Daily Beast. “Their responsibility is the well-being and safety and education of kids.”
“I’m not a teacher or a coach, so I don’t know what goes through their head, but the mandatory reporting laws are pretty cut and dry,” he added. “They’re simple: If you hear something, report it.”
While Tyler said he could not comment on the specifics of another jurisdiction’s case, he acknowledged: “I’m a police officer, so If I’m cleaning out a shower pipe and I find bloody underwear, I’m going to tell somebody. Everyone from the principal down to the custodian is a mandatory reporter.”
In Texas, mandatory reporters who are licensed or certified by the state and have regular contact with children, such as teachers and nurses, are required to report suspected abuse or neglect within 48 hours. Failure to do so is punishable by a prison sentence of as much as one year and a $4,000 fine. Flagging suspicion of abuse to a supervisor at work does not count as an official report.
Despite this law, it’s not uncommon for adults who witness hazing to keep mum about it, said Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and expert witness who wrote the 2005 book Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment and Humiliation.
“We often see adults either participate or as bystanders watching,” said Lipkins. “Nobody wants to admit that hazing happens everywhere and anywhere, particularly when students are unsupervised, but this is a culture within which the coaches themselves have been exposed their whole lives and it has become normal.”
Indeed, two La Vernia mothers told The Daily Beast in 2017 that their sons believed the assaults were a “rite of passage.”
“They were so desperate to play football,” said one. “They thought it was normal.”
As an example, Lipkins cited a 2002 hazing case in St. Amant, Louisiana, where a coach was accused of walking into the locker room while a boy was being taped down, naked and face-first onto a bench before his teammates sodomized him with the empty tape dispenser on his 16th birthday. The coach, David Swacker, allegedly told the perpetrators only that they were “wasting good tape.”
Swacker was charged, and ultimately acquitted, for failing to report abuse and neglect of a child.
After the charges were announced, in an eerie call-back to the La Vernia case, students and booster club members supported Swacker by wearing T-shirts that said “Back Swack” to games. The Daily Beast previously reported that when Robert Olivarez Jr. was accused in La Vernia, at least one student wore a shirt with his face on it to school in a show of support.
More recently, in 2018, four ex-football players at an Oklahoma high school were charged with second-degree rape by instrumentation over the alleged sexual abuse of a teammate, and prosecutors have claimed that school administrators waited eight days to report it to authorities.
That same year, at Damascus High School in Maryland, members of the high-school administration—including the principal, athletic director, and junior varsity football coach—were replaced after six players on the junior-varsity team faced criminal charges for the alleged sexual assault of multiple teammates using a broomstick in the locker room. School officials came under fire for waiting more than 12 hours to report the alleged crimes, which the perpetrators allegedly called “a tradition.”
And just last month, The San Jose Mercury News reported yet another sexual-assault allegation involving a high-school football team in Gilroy, California. Fortunately, in that case, the accusation was almost immediately relayed to administrators, who then notified police. The accused students were arrested, suspended, and issued juvenile citations for sexual battery, according to the Mercury News. Administrators canceled the rest of the football season, the newspaper reported.
“These things do happen in your backyard,” said Lipkins. “The truth is, this is a human behavior that seems to be rampant in high schools in colleges. The sooner we pay attention to it, the sooner we can stop it.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the alleged victims and their families.
—Adam Rawnsley contributed reporting.