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Eastside Catholic was prepared to suspend high school football stars accused in 2018 sexual assault case

School leaders abruptly changed their minds when a lawyer for the private school warned against taking disciplinary action.

SAMMAMISH, Wash. —  Administrators at Eastside Catholic High School were preparing to suspend a group of football players accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in April 2018. But they abruptly changed their minds when a lawyer for the private school warned against taking disciplinary action, according to two sources directly connected to the matter. 

The sources, who asked not to be identified because they didn’t have permission to speak to reporters, said the attorney recommended school leaders wait to make a decision about how to proceed with the five football stars until Clyde Hill police concluded its criminal investigation.

While police and prosecutors conducted their eight-month investigation, the faith-based school could have carried out its own inquiry to determine if the student-athletes violated the school’s code of conduct policies, which are rooted in Christian doctrine. 

But that didn’t happen. Instead of conducting an internal investigation, school leaders allowed the boys to continue to attend the faith-based private school without disruption. The athletes also stayed on the powerhouse football team as part of the starting lineup, and they went on to win two more state championship trophies in 2018 and last year.

In a statement, Eastside Catholic defended its actions. A spokeswoman explained the school didn’t take disciplinary action against the players because school leaders were hamstrung by a lack of information and evidence.

“At that time, and throughout the police investigation, all the school had was rumors of misconduct. The rumors were not substantiated by any evidence, therefore the school could not take action,” wrote Karen Hatch, marketing and communications director for Eastside Catholic. 

Attorneys for the football players applauded the school’s decision to step back while police and prosecutors completed the criminal case. But six sexual assault experts interviewed for this story criticized Eastside Catholic’s response. They said — at a minimum — the school should have conducted its own parallel investigation, separate from police.

“They could make the decision to be prudent and hold the players from participating in the sport, as well as protecting the community from their presence while that (criminal) investigation was completed,” said University of Oregon Professor Jennifer Freyd, a pioneer in the field of trauma psychology, who studies how institutions respond to sexual assaults and other traumatic events.

“It’s important to be fair to the people who’ve been accused of something as well, but one can be fair while also acknowledging that, given what’s alleged, it’s important to (withhold) participation (in an extracurricular activity),” Freyd added.  

After the months-long law enforcement investigation, the football players weren’t arrested or charged with a crime because the lead prosecutor on the case said her office received too much conflicting information about what happened that April 2018 night, including differing accounts of whether or not the alleged victim consented to sex. KING 5 is not identifying the athletes since they weren’t charged in the case.

It’s undisputed in police records, though, that four football players had sex with a 16-year-old girl in the bed of a moving pickup truck, in public. Two other teenagers, including another Eastside Catholic stand out player and a Lake Washington High School student, watched from inside the truck’s cab. 

RELATED: Attorneys fight for Eastside Catholic football stars’ scholarships, reputations after 2018 rape accusations

According to police records, at least one of the football players recorded and sent out videos of the events via Snapchat to students at Eastside Catholic and other students across Seattle’s Eastern suburbs. That revelation, at one point, led police to also investigate the teens for dealing, distribution and possession of child pornography. Police said they were never able to obtain copies of the videos because Snapchat automatically deleted them. 

School Failed To Hold Students Accountable   

Because Eastside Catholic administrators never opened an internal investigation, they missed an opportunity to hold the players accountable for violating serious school rules and not meeting the standards listed in their own student and family handbook, KING 5 found. 

The school’s 67-page code of conduct spells out expectations for all students, including athletes. It reminds students that being an athlete is “not a right, but a privilege,” and it threatens academic suspension or dismissal from extracurricular activities if student-athletes don’t “display exemplary behavior.” It also threatens punishment for offenses that are less serious than having sex in public, such as dress code infractions, unexcused absences and sexting. 

“If the administration takes no action, it sends a message to students and parents that the reported incident, even though it occurred off campus, is acceptable behavior, and that the school would tolerate similar conduct should it come to their attention again,” said Joel Levin, program director of Stop Sexual Assault in Schoolsa Washington-based nonprofit that specializes in the K-12 student population. 

“It also sends a message that the school is interested or values protecting its reputation and their football program more than creating a culture of respect within the school,” he added.

Hatch, the Eastside Catholic spokeswoman, declined an interview request. She also did not answer reporters’ written questions about the school’s response to the allegations involving the football players. 

After KING 5 began airing reports about about the case last month, revealing the undisputed set of facts that the players had sex in public and recorded the events on camera, Hatch denounced the conduct.  

“The alleged behavior described by the KING 5 reporter is appalling and is not acceptable or aligned with our values,” Hatch wrote in a statement. “We expect all of our students to treat everyone they come into contact with respect for human dignity.”

She said the school fully cooperated with the Clyde Hill Police Department since becoming aware of “accusations of wrongdoing” in May 2018. 

She added that administrators spoke to the students alleged to be involved and their families, but officials were only left with rumors. The reason administrators didn’t have enough information to act, she said, is because police wouldn’t give them details about the case. 

“The KING 5 news report is the first, albeit indirect, communication the school has received from the police about the details of the alleged incident,” Hatch wrote, adding that the school believes in the “the presumption of innocence and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”  

Clyde Hill police officials said they didn’t divulge information to the school at the time because the criminal investigation was open and active. 

“I’m pretty sure there’s still a moral code with that school,” said Clyde Hill Police Chief Kyle Kolling. “Regardless, they were aware of the video from multiple sources and yet they didn’t do anything.” 

As of April 15, nearly a year-and-a-half after law enforcement wrapped up the case, Eastside Catholic officials still hadn’t requested or obtained the 521-page police investigation file that contains key details about what happened before, during and after the 2018 sexual encounter, according to government records specialists.  

Inaction Causes Outrage, Tension In Class 

Esther Warkov, executive director of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, said the school missed a major opportunity to build trust with its students during a stressful time. School leaders, she said, should have told the school community a criminal investigation was underway, and they should have announced they would conduct their own investigation outside of the criminal case.

“This type of transparency builds trust,” Warkov said. “The school should also have offered a confidential way to share information about the incident and assured students who were uncomfortable attending classes with the alleged perpetrators that the (suspects) would be removed from their shared classes.”

While Eastside Catholic administrators made no school-wide announcements about the sexual assault allegations, it didn’t stop Eastside Catholic students from spreading rumors about that April 2018 night. 

Three former Eastside Catholic students, who attended the school at the time, told KING 5 the accusations were an open secret that brought strong emotions and discomfort to many students in class. Most of the student population had either heard gossip or seen the Snapchat videos of the teens having sex, and it was hard to ignore the widespread tension the situation created within the school community, the students said. 

More than one student took their concerns to administrators, according to police records and KING 5 interviews with students.

A student told police she went to administrators to ask why the athletes accused of raping the girl were still in school. She told the cops she was “frustrated the football players were still walking around the campus after the incident” and “even bragging about it during class.” The girl worried school officials were trying to “cover up” what happened to protect its star athletes, according to police records. 

After more than a year passed without action from school leaders, in 2019, more than 100 students signed a petition that a student intended to deliver to Eastside Catholic’s top brass. The petition, provided to KING 5, said that students felt “unsafe,” “scared,” and fed up with “little transparency” at the school and “lack of progress” following the rape allegations. 

“Every time an issue makes its way to the top and nothing is done about it, you are telling another student that their issues are irrelevant, and that sexual harassment/ assault is something to be expected,” the petition author wrote. “It seems the fear of losing the (star athletes) that make the school more attractive is scarier to you than doing the right thing.”

The female student who organized the petition said she ultimately decided not to deliver it to administrators because she feared retaliation. The student shared it with KING 5, she said, to demonstrate the scope of the student body's concerns. 

 “It makes sense to me that people were outraged,” said Freyd, the University of Oregon professor who studies how people and institutions react to traumatic events. 

‘Institutional Betrayals Can Be Very Toxic’ 

Freyd is nationally renowned for her research on “institutional betrayal,” a concept that explains the negative impact institutions, such as schools, churches, businesses, fraternities and government entities, have on victims and the community at large when they fail to prevent or appropriately respond to individuals’ wrongdoings. 

Victims who directly experience institutional betrayal are more likely to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and physical health difficulties, Freyd said. 

In one March 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, university researchers examined veterans who perceived institutions had betrayed them after they were sexually assaulted in the military. The researchers found the veterans had “increased odds of attempting suicide.”

“Institutional betrayals can be very toxic to people’s well-being,” Freyd said. 

In the Eastside Catholic case, the alleged victim, now 18, attended another school at the time of the incident. But almost two years later, in March of this year, she submitted a written statement to a King County court that said the April 2018 events were “very traumatic.” 

The girl explained that after the incident, she dropped out of her high school, was hospitalized for “a period of months” and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She also wrote she’d been “bullied in person and online.” Court and police records show the girl received intimidating letters and messages from supporters of the football players, including their attorneys who threatened to sue her family if she continued to say she was raped. 

Through her attorney, the girl declined an interview request. But the alleged victim said Eastside Catholic’s lack of action caused her additional trauma, according to a person close to her. 

It’s not just victims of wrongdoing that experience institutional betrayal. Oftentimes, people who aren’t directly connected to the event in question or the institution can feel betrayed, Freyd said. The professor said she’s not at all surprised that other Eastside Catholic students who weren’t involved in the April 2018 event still experienced an adverse impact. 

“Prestigious institutions in our society are often trusted even if one’s not a member of them. I will trust some prestigious hospital to be fulfilling their duties and I can still experience betrayal when I find out they’ve been mistreating their patients or doctors,” Freyd said.

Levin, the program director of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, said institutional betrayal that occurs in even one case can also cause harm to future victims, and it’s the reason a lot of sexual assaults go unreported. 

“It inhibits students from stepping forward and reporting if an incident occurs to them,” he said. “If the school is not going to do anything, then why risk retaliation?” 

‘It’s Not Too Late’ 

Sexual assault experts said the school still has an opportunity to change course with its response in this case and in future cases where its students are accused of serious crimes. 

“It only happened two years ago. It’s not too late for the school to decide they want to investigate and take action if warranted,” said Michele Dauber, a Stanford University law professor and a nationally-recognized advocate for sexual assault victims. “They certainly can investigate now, and I think they should.”

After KING 5 aired three stories last month about the case involving the Eastside Catholic High School football stars, the private school leaders changed a code of conduct policy. KING found they updated their online student handbook with a new requirement that all students cooperate in internal investigations. The handbook threatens academic and extracurricular consequences, including expulsion, if students fail to cooperate. 

On May 5, after reporters informed Eastside Catholic leaders that other members of the school’s elite football team were suspects in a different criminal investigation in 2019, the school’s president announced that it had immediately retained a consulting agency to assist in “independently and objectively evaluating” the school’s processes, “identifying gaps and implementing changes.” 

“We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the culture of every department, every program, every student and every faculty and staff member is aligned with our values,” wrote Eastside Catholic President Gil Piccioto in a letter to students, obtained by KING 5. “As a faith-based institution, our community must live our values in words, deeds and spirit and you have my solemn commitment to make it so.”  

Two of the Eastside Catholic students who were suspects in the 2018 sexual assault investigation and one who was a witness are seniors this year. As of April 15, when KING 5 launched its multi-part investigation, the teens were still enrolled in the private Sammamish school. 

Now that details of that 2018 night are public as a result of KING’s reporting, Hatch declined to answer whether or not the school will take disciplinary measures against the three athletes who were still enrolled. 

“Eastside Catholic believes the police and the prosecutor’s office were in the best position to investigate and review this matter,” she wrote in an April 29 statement, explaining that she couldn’t comment on internal disciplinary matters. “The school continues to rely on the conclusions of these authorities to guide its actions.” 

While the high school didn’t take disciplinary measures against the football stars, some of the Eastside Catholic students are now facing pushback from universities. Five of the six boys involved landed college football scholarships, but at least two of them have since lost their offers.

One of the Eastside Catholic students, a witness to the alleged rape, lost his football scholarship last month, and the prestigious university also revoked his admission. The oldest suspect, who graduated from Eastside Catholic in 2018, lost his chance to play football on a college scholarship at the time because the university wouldn’t allow him to join the team while the police investigation was active, according to a different attorney on the case. 

Last month, attorneys for some of the football stars criticized KING 5’s reporting and other media coverage of the case, arguing the press unfairly demonized the students and unnecessarily put their academic futures in jeopardy. They characterized the encounter as a “private moment” between consenting teenagers, who weren’t arrested or charged with a crime. 

“I think Eastside Catholic handled this correctly. It was an explosive allegation of an off-campus assault,” said Lara Hruska, one of the attorneys representing the athletes. “They did right by getting a thorough and full investigation to know whether or not they should respond, and they chose—after the boys were exonerated and no charges were brought—to allow the boys to continue to attend and to play football.” 

She urged the Eastside Catholic school community, universities and the media to drop the story and stop scrutinizing the case. 

“Leave these young people alone and let them move on with their lives—all of them,” Hruska said.    

KING 5 Investigative Reporter Taylor Mirfendereski contributed to this story. 

If you or someone you know is the victim of a sexual assault, help is available. We’ve compiled a list of some Washington state resources and information on how to report a sex crime in your area. 

To talk to someone immediately from the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, call the 24-hour resource line at 888-998-6423. 

Institutions interested in learning more on how to handle traumatic events can obtain information from the Center for Institutional Courage.

RELATED: Alleged victims in parking lot brawl with Eastside Catholic athletes say cops, prosecutors denied them justice

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RELATED: Four Eastside Catholic H.S. football players suspected of sexual assault in 2018; none charged with a crime