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California and the West

Orange County Group Backs Accused Athletes

Schools: A student advocacy organization contends sexual assault charges against six Yucca Valley football players are tinged by racism and exaggerate the truth.

November 23, 2000|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Orange County student advocacy group has taken up the cause of six Yucca Valley High School football players accused of sexually assaulting other athletes during hazing incidents last summer.

The Laguna Niguel-based organization SchoolWatch has raised a host of questions about the criminal charges, contending they are tinged by racism, have been mishandled by authorities and grossly exaggerate what occurred.

"It was horseplay, not hazing, and I think the evidence will show that," said group founder Mark Lopez.

The six athletes were suspended from classes and arrested by San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies earlier this month after a parent filed a complaint in late October.

The teenagers were booked on suspicion of sexual battery, rape with a foreign object, conspiracy and false imprisonment stemming from two incidents involving three other football players, according to the Sheriff's Department.

Lopez said the object allegedly used was a short wooden stick.

The suspects--all juveniles at the time of the incidents--were released into the custody of their parents in the desert community near Joshua Tree National Park. The athletes have not been formally charged.

In press releases and news conferences, including one held Wednesday afternoon, Lopez has maintained that both the Morongo Unified School District and the Sheriff's Department have acted improperly.

Among the allegations:

* High school officials have "altered, destroyed or hidden" records about the incidents.

* After the complaint was filed, the Sheriff's Department installed video and audio equipment in the boys' locker room to secretly record activities.

* The Sheriff's Department interrogated students without the knowledge or presence of their parents.

* School administrators wrote or changed the statements of student witnesses.

* One of the alleged victims, a white student, has in the past worn a T-shirt cryptically espousing support for the Ku Klux Klan. The suspects include three minority students, Lopez said.

School district officials Wednesday declined to comment on Lopez's charges.

Sheriff's Department spokesman Chip Patterson defended deputies' handling of the case.

"We're confident this was a sound investigation and our officers adhered to proper juvenile justice procedures," Patterson said. "There's absolutely no wrongdoing."

He added that investigators had interviewed about 100 people, most of them students, and do not anticipate any more arrests.

Lopez says his group has represented hundreds of students in disciplinary cases statewide and even nationally since he founded it in 1993.

He started the organization after his son ran into trouble at Niguel Hills Middle School for taking a handgun on campus to protect himself from a group of skinheads. Lopez was incensed that the boy was questioned by school officials and a sheriff's deputy without an advocate or parent present.

Violence and drug use on campuses have prompted school administrators across the country to take steps sometimes challenged by civil libertarians as invasions of student privacy.

But legal experts say state and federal courts have tended to back school officials, finding that safety issues can override the privacy concerns of students regarding locker searches, drug testing and the like.

In the case of the alleged video surveillance, Rachel Moran, a professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, said there is a question of whether the football players could expect much privacy in a locker room, where people freely wander in and out.

The matter of officers questioning juveniles without their parents present raises more difficult legal issues, scholars said.

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