Saturday, September 17, 2005

 

Heartland rites of passage


Was it hazing, or just boys being boys?

FLOWER MOUND, Texas – As the freshmen arrived at a Flower Mound High School wrestling team party Aug. 27, the upperclassmen swept them off their feet – literally.

They stripped the newcomers down to their bathing suits, picked them up and carried them to the pool in the backyard, some of the participants said.

On the way, they took turns slapping the youngsters' bellies, a game they call "pink bellying." After eight or nine slaps, they threw the boys into the pool.

When the freshmen tried to leave the pool, upperclassmen played defense. They dunked the boys back into the pool as parents and their coach, Charles Zascavage, watched, said two freshman team members who attended the party but are not among the five accusers who told police they were the victims of hazing and assault. One of the five said he was also sexually assaulted.

Is that hazing or "boys being boys"? Two sides interpret the same party very differently. To most of the parents and freshmen, it was a display of boyhood roughhousing. Police determined it was criminal.

"It's like there were two different parties," said Jennifer Stubbs, the mother of a freshman wrestler who said the event, attended by about 20 freshmen and about 50 upperclassmen, was not hazing. "I'm not sure which party [the teenagers who made the accusations] were at."

Police charged Mr. Zascavage with hazing and 18 students with various charges of assault and hazing. Three juveniles were charged with felony sexual assault.

Police identified the five adult students as 17-year-olds Dustin Everett, Thomas Pinckard, Adam Well and Cory Talbert, and 18-year-old Nathan Marks. Mr. Talbert, Mr. Everett and Mr. Well were charged with assault and hazing; Mr. Pinckard and Mr. Marks were charged only with hazing. The students and their parents either could not be reached for comment Friday or declined to comment.

Roy G. Morris, a Flower Mound attorney representing five of the accused, said he's learned more from media reports than from police and is still gathering information.


Rumors swirling

Mr. Zascavage turned himself in Thursday on one count of hazing and was released on $500 bond. A person answering the phone at Mr. Zascavage's Wylie residence referred questions to a Flower Mound attorney, who also could not be reached.

Two freshmen at the party said they – and most of their friends – didn't think of the party as hazing. They said they assumed all had a good time until the following Monday, when police called them into the library to write statements.

Since then, wrestlers have fended off rumors flying around Flower Mound High and criticized the police and parents of the boys who made the allegations.

"At school, it's what everyone is talking about," said Kirk Grogan, a 14-year-old freshman wrestler. "When I wear my wrestling shirt, people ask me if someone was killed or put in a coma. There are all sorts of rumors."

Among the more bizarre rumors: The upperclassmen gave the freshmen terminal cancer.

"It's crazy," freshman wrestler Zach Stubbs said. "And it's stupid. It gets old. It wasn't a big deal."

"We wouldn't be defending them if this stuff did happen," said Mrs. Stubbs, Zach's mother. "If there was a sexual assault, none of us would defend them."

The party and investigation have sharply divided wrestling team parents and confused many of the wrestlers.

A group of 40 parents protested the school district's decision to suspend Mr. Zascavage from coaching and punish 16 wrestlers earlier this week. Parents said they were rebuffed and told all 16 were kicked off the team.


Support for accusers

On the other side, only relatives have publicly supported the five accusers' accounts.

Mary Alice McLarty, who represents two of the accusers, said freshmen were slapped and punched, but would give few other details. Police reports also said the accusers were kicked in the groin.

Ms. McLarty said other parents have harassed one of her clients who came forward.

"Their son had a wonderful first week of school," Ms. McLarty said. "They are afraid of this mob mentality now. It's gotten really ugly."

The mother of one of the 14-year-old accusers said her son's back was black and blue after the alleged hazing.

"I guarantee a car wreck would not look this bad," she said. "He said they pounded the crap out of him. I said, 'Why didn't you get away?' and he said he couldn't. To me, that's hazing."

The older kids kicked, punched, slapped and threw footballs at the five victims, she said. All five went to a hospital after the party, she said. She said one had a concussion and one a bruised spleen.

Zach and Kirk said team members know of only two of the accusers, and they said neither has been harassed.

"I'm not going to say no one was hurt," said Dareth Chapa, the mother of a 16-year-old wrestler. "But this was not premeditated. This was not malicious. This was dumb boys not thinking. When you put that many boys together, they're going to be boys."

Among those charged with hazing is a 110-pound freshman, three wrestlers said. Police refused to confirm or deny this.

Zach said he saw one of his classmates cry during the "pink bellying." After three or four slaps, the upperclassmen stopped and threw the kid into the pool, he said.

At one point, Coach Z – as Mr. Zascavage is called by students – walked to the pool area from the patio – where he spent most of the party – and said, "Hey, you guys, settle down; you're getting a little wild," according to witnesses and police reports.

But most of the freshmen went along with the physical welcome and "pink bellying," Zach and others said.

The wrestlers and parents have seen pictures of one freshman's deep bruises on television and could not explain them. A popular explanation is that the boy fell down concrete steps leading to the pool.

But relatives say the bruises were the result of a planned hazing event.

"I saw the bruises," said the grandmother of a freshman wrestler. "They're not minor. He's 14, and he says it's OK, it's not a big deal. But kids are victims."

The wrestlers explained the sexual assault charges against three juveniles as "knifing" or "goosing," a common prank where a person surprises someone by holding their hand straight out and whipping someone in the rear.

But a relative of one of the accusers said the sexual assault occurred when some team members put condoms on their fingers and sexually assaulted a teammate.

"[Goosing] was not a freshmen thing," said Eric Grogan, a former team captain who graduated last year and did not attend the party. "If you screwed up in practice, people did that to you."

At the party, team members also engaged in "chicken fighting." The pool game features fights between boys on top of each other's shoulders. People at the party said no one was forced to play, and upperclassmen did not pit themselves against freshmen.

Chicken fight participants sometimes used noodles as swords. The long foam pool toys can leave a mark when used as a whip.

"You expect they're not going to be scared of messing around," Eric Grogan said. "You expect they're ready to be physical. The upperclassmen expected them to be tough guys. They didn't intentionally try to cross the line."


Parents' concerns

Parents also are upset with Flower Mound police, who they said did not notify them their children would be interviewed, have not returned parents' phone calls and have turned down parents' requests for copies of their sons' statements. Several parents who attended the party said police never interviewed them. Police officials did not return phone calls Friday seeking comment.

"If you don't interview all the parents, how can it be a thorough investigation?" asked George Grogan, who attended the party. Mr. Grogan is the father of Kirk and Eric Grogan.

Some of the wrestlers also said police tried to lead them in questioning and didn't allow them to tell the whole story.

"The police haven't gone over everything," freshman Kirk Grogan said. "Their questioning was pretty much leading us on. They didn't ask us if we received hazing, they asked us how much hazing we received. They asked us what they wanted to hear."

Zach added: "They asked me how much punishment should the upperclassmen get. I wrote, 'not too harshly.' "

Speaking of Mr. Everett, who is charged with assault and hazing, Eric Grogan said: "His career goal is to serve in the Coast Guard. He's a really good guy. He wants to do good with his life and help other people. I can't imagine him intentionally hurting anyone."

Parents and players stood most passionately behind Mr. Zascavage, calling him a "gentle giant." He was last year's state wrestling coach of the year.

"There's no one in our class happy about Coach leaving," Kirk Grogan said.


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