Browerville tries to make sense of hazing, sex-assault case

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2012 - 12:13 AM

Tiny Browerville searches for way to move past allegations of hazing by members of the high school football team.

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Connor Burns

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BROWERVILLE, MINN. - The high school football player sat on a chair in his driveway, wanting it all to go away.

Allegations that his teammates sexually assaulted other players last season have made life difficult in this central Minnesota town of 790, where rumors have been swirling for months.

Team members didn't want anybody to get in trouble, the player said, but they wanted a stop to the acts, described in court papers as touching teammates mostly through their athletic shorts, sometimes holding them down, sometimes digitally penetrating them. Now three players have been charged with felonies and some students are embarrassed to wear their Browerville Tigers T-shirts in neighboring towns, careful to avoid inviting ridicule.

"Everybody knew that it was bad, but they didn't think it would turn into something this big," said the player, who didn't want his name used. "All the kids want it to be over with."

But as defense attorneys now allege that such assaults were part of a common culture of horseplay and hazing that's gone on for years at the school, the case is only beginning. The town, meanwhile, regardless of what happens in court, is left figuring out what to make of it all and how to prevent it in the future.

Could widespread assaults have happened without any adults knowing? Or was it the work of a few bullies? In an age when such assaults are joked about on television and the Internet, were players confused about what is a crime?

"It makes it a little bit harder to wrap your head around," said Julie Kapsch, of the nonprofit Hands of Hope, which advocates for sexual assault victims and others in Todd County. "I think one of the hardest things is the stigma out there ... that boys will be boys."

Cases of sexual assault-type hazing are popping up around the country more frequently, said Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written books on hazing.

Boys typically don't talk about it because they're ashamed and "don't want their own sexuality questioned," he said. Defendants are often allowed to plead to lesser crimes.

"The number of cases is astronomical," Nuwer said. "The number of cases where people actually went to jail, I can cite them almost by memory."

Horseplay turning awkward?

Attorney Chris Karpan, who represents one of the defendants, said the problem in Browerville is "systemic" and shouldn't be handled by charging only a few kids, but should be addressed holistically.

The sheriff's office began investigating in April, after a parent told a school official of an incident at a local lake, where members of the football team allegedly dunked, held and sexually assaulted a teammate under water.

Former seniors Seth Kellen and Connor Burns and a player charged as a juvenile all face criminal sexual conduct charges. Kellen, 19, is accused in five criminal complaints of numerous assaults on multiple victims, including some inside the central Minnesota high school. Burns, 18, is charged in assaults in a hotel room during the state basketball tournament.

Attorney Ryan Garry, who represents Burns, wrote in court papers that "the actions were like tradition or initiation." The victim, in an interview with a defense investigator, didn't see it as a molestation and believes the criminal complaint was "blown out of proportion and that the incident was really a lot of horseplay that turned very awkward," Garry wrote. Garry said in an interview that Burns' actions didn't constitute a crime.

Karpan, who represents Kellen, said any alleged touching wasn't a sexual thing.

"You go from thinking that you're being roughhoused as a football player to that you're a victim of sexual assault because you're told that," Karpan said.

With such serious charges, he said, the law needs to be applied fairly.

"We're talking about an accusation that will brand my client as a sex offender for the rest of his life," Karpan said. "Given the climate that this all occurred in, that isn't just."

'Above and beyond'

Sitting in his office in Long Prairie, a statue of a blindfolded Lady Justice near the window, Todd County Attorney Chuck Rasmussen said the investigation was thorough, knowing that any charges would create a wave of shock. But after all three attorneys in his office independently reviewed the sheriff's files, he said, they agreed it was clear which incidents were crimes.

They found no evidence of such conduct going on for years at the school, he said. As part of the investigation, they heard of towel-snapping or a slap on the butt, he said, but nothing as extreme as the charges allege.

"This went above and beyond," Rasmussen said. "I'm a guy. I was a jock. I was in locker rooms a lot. We know the routine stuff. ... Some of the students themselves knew that it was crossing the line."

Though the charges make him the center of criticism locally, Rasmussen said he hopes the issue travels beyond Todd County. "If anything good is to come out of it ... it's the awareness that this can take place."

Making changes

In Browerville, where downtown businesses stretch for three blocks on Main Street, several adults pondered if modern-day humor has confused teenage boys about the lines between what's funny and what's wrong. They mentioned popular movies and television shows such as "Jackass" and "Tosh.0," which has shown home videos of men groping other men.

Others here, where few would discuss the charges, said they've heard little sympathy for the defendants. Children are taught about bad touch at a young age, they said, and the described incidents were clearly over the line.

"It's not going to really go away by not saying nothing," said George Santer, who is semi-retired and took a break from working on restoring his 1971 Chevy pickup. "Does it make people feel bad? Hell yes, it does. Does me."

A parent of one victim wrote a letter that someone else read before the school board. "My son was like all the other victims, they said nothing," the letter said. "They kept quiet because of embarrassment or intimidation. I understand that we want to place blame, but who do we blame? ... I personally blame the accused and the accused only. Do we as a school need to make some changes? Yes. Do I as a parent have to make some changes? Yes. ... My son just wants this to go away. He wants to see the accused pay for what they did, but then that's it."

Parent Pat Lamusga spoke at an August school board meeting because he was angry, he said, at what he views as years of bullying in the district that went unaddressed.

"If you don't have any repercussions for bullying, that leads to hazing, that leads to criminal sexual conduct," he said in an interview.

"I think it's all about enforcement of rules. You can have a rule, but if you don't enforce it, it's worthless."

Superintendent Robert Schaefer declined to comment, but in an Aug. 13 letter to parents, he and the school board chairman outlined actions the administration would take, including holding mandatory meetings for all students and extracurricular groups to review the district's policies prohibiting hazing, bullying, harassment and violence, as well as develop written locker-room monitoring guidelines.

Parent Sheila Asmus, who has a third-grade son in the district, said she was angry and considered sending him elsewhere, but now believes the district is making steps now to fix the issues.

"I know it's a good school system," she said. "They just need to take what happened seriously and make changes to heal and move on."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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