Elk River school officials investigating football team hazing have turned their attention from players to coaches.
With suspensions and dismissals already announced for nine players, questions about the coaches include: What, if anything, did they know? Why weren't they around when the incidents occurred? Was there a lack of leadership that allowed the hazing to happen in the first place?
"It's just a piece of the entire investigation," said Elk River School Superintendent Mark Bezek. "The hazing thing itself is separate from the coaches. The first thing that pops up is the supervision by everybody, and to see that it doesn't happen again."
Bezek declined to comment on the particulars of the coaching staff portion of the investigation, but a source close to the inquiry said coaches are not accused of being present at the hazings or participating in them.
The hazing, which occurred between practices last Monday and Tuesday, involved some players wrestling other players to the floor of the high school wrestling room, then striking or poking them with broom handles on or near the buttocks. The players were wearing their football gear and were not forced to disrobe.
Once school officials found out about the hazing, varsity practice was put on hold and the team's 12 coaches were placed on paid administrative leave pending the district investigation.
After a school board meeting Sunday night, it was announced that seven of those coaches had been reinstated, while five were still on paid leave. District officials on Monday identified the five as head coach Mike Cross, John Pink, Brad Olson, Mark Leland and Rick Michalak.
Officials said that they simply had more questions and that the continued leaves shouldn't be taken as an indication that the five were being singled out for discipline.
Cross has declined to comment on the investigation.
The part of the investigation dealing with the students has been concluded. At the Sunday night meeting, the school board decided to dismiss four students from the team, to suspend three others for four games, and to suspend two for one game. Those students, who were not identified in accordance with state law, were informed of the measures Monday.
The team returned to practice Monday for the first time in five days and also underwent anti-hazing training.
How much will the disciplinary measures hurt the school's football program? Elk River struggled even before the suspensions. Last year, the team finished 1-8, and the year before that it was 2-7. The Elks haven't reached the state football tournament since 1992.
Coaches were optimistic about improvement this season, though, since the team was moving from the daunting Northwest Suburban league to the Mississippi 8 conference.
Bezek said the investigation of the coaches is expected to wrap up Wednesday. Then the school board will digest the results and decide what to do. "There are just a few inconsistencies that we found during the summary report that we want to investigate a little deeper and have some discussion on," Bezek said.
Asked what discipline might be facing coaches, Bezek said: "I can't say right now. I don't know. It could range on the spectrum from very little to possible dismissal. That will be determined by the school board."
How widespread is the kind of hazing that occurred at Elk River? That's hard to quantify, but Dave Stead, executive director of the Minnesota High School League, thinks it's far less common than a generation ago.
"I'm sure that 20 years ago it was much more common than it is currently," said Stead, who said he didn't know any more about the incidents at Elk River than what he had gleaned from news reports. "I'm sure in the past there was hazing that coaches went through when they were in college and high school. But I think awareness and the training that schools have done with coaches and teachers have done a lot to extinguish it."
Still, it happens. Last winter, 10 White Bear Lake boys' hockey team members were suspended for two weeks after forcing younger team members to strip to their underwear and run barefoot across the snow. In 2005, eight players on the Burnsville girls' varsity hockey team were hit with two- to four-game suspensions in connection with a hazing incident.
Staff writer Michael Rand contributed to this report. Norman Draper • 612-673-4547