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PERSPECTIVE

Hazing case raises many questions

Three La Puente students face various charges including sexual assault. An accuser's mother is angry at the school's response.

November 23, 2012|Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times

As a child, the boy would pretend to be his favorite soccer pro, sliding across the ground and narrating into an imaginary microphone, "Oh, what a save by Oswaldo Sanchez!" But his mother thought the game was too rough. So he could only play pickup.

When he entered La Puente High, his mother decided to let him play. What authorities have said happened next was staggering, and led to the arrest of four students in September.

According to Los Angeles County sheriff's officials, older soccer players sodomized younger ones — and attempted to sodomize the youth, who requested anonymity. The youth said they used a sharpened pole and called the hazing ritual "giving the palo."

Three students currently face various charges of sexual assault and battery in the hazing case. This week in court, they denied the accusations. Charges were rejected against the fourth player for insufficient evidence.

I was dumbfounded that such an atavistic rite allegedly could have taken place on a modern high school campus. So I met with the youth and his mother to find out more.

We sat in his aunt's living room in a modest ranch-style home in La Puente, around the corner from the cul-de-sac where he and his cousins learned to kick the ball around.

The 15-year-old is slight, with dark wavy hair and an enviably clear complexion for a kid his age. He spoke mostly in a monotone, only showing emotion when his mother described how he had changed since the alleged assault: fighting at school, getting angry. It seemed he couldn't stand to cause his mother more suffering. She'd cried enough.

When he first heard the older soccer players talk about giving the palo, the youth told me, he thought it was just a story made up to scare the younger kids. Even after he saw another player limp — red-faced and furious — out of a storage room the varsity players used as their locker room, he wasn't sure the hazing was real.

But in a civil claim filed against the school district, the youth describes being ordered one day last spring to put equipment away in the varsity changing room. The space, just four steps away from his coach's desk, was rumored to be where the hazing happened, he told me.

The claim details his fear, and how he asked the coach, Bahram Alavi, if he could clean his office instead. But a player came out of the locker room and said he needed the younger boy in the back; Alavi winked at the older player as he was led away, according to the youth and the claim.

The coach, who has not been charged in the criminal case, could not be reached for comment.

"Right there, I thought what everybody had been saying was true," the youth said during our conversation. Once in the room, he alleged being jumped from behind and beaten. The claim describes players trying to stick the palo inside him, and him fighting them off. The bell rang, he told me, and his alleged attackers let him go.

The youth told me that when he staggered out, "All I heard was the coach laughing."

Hacienda La Puente Unified School District Supt. Barbara Nakaoka, in a written notice to parents, said that observers had likened the scandal to the Penn State sexual abuse case, but she argued that the comparison was unfair.

She's got a point. Unlike Penn State, where officials have been charged with failing to take action for years after learning about abuse allegations against coach Jerry Sandusky, the district notified authorities as soon as the alleged hazing was reported. And I take Nakaoka at her word that she personally was appalled.

"I thought it was the most horrible thing I ever heard of," Nakaoka said in an interview.

But if ritual hazing has in fact been occurring in the La Puente soccer program for years, it raises so many questions:

Is it something to do with sports culture? (Similar allegations have been brought outside of the team structure: In Fontana, a teacher was charged with sex abuse after a student allegedly was sodomized last summer during a masonry class. That case is ongoing.)

Are certain boys targeted because they are perceived as powerless?

One thing is certain: Abuse flourishes in silence.

When the palo rite was first reported, the youth said, his teammates called a meeting to get everyone to keep their mouths shut. He went.

Feeling pained or embarrassed, the youth at first denied he'd been attacked. Later, he told administrators the story he told me, he said, because "I didn't want what happened to me to happen to anyone else."

In our conversation, he said they acted like he was "stupid" and told him he had no evidence. His mother was mostly quiet through the interview, but became indignant talking about school officials. She said the principal had told her that since her son hadn't been penetrated, he was "all right, everything's fine."

The principal, Ava Smalley, declined to comment and referred all questions about the incident to the superintendent.

I'm not sure what happened here. But I would have liked to hear from the young accuser that officials had asked how they could help him and his family.

The youth is at another school now. Some of the kids there have heard the story and make fun of him, he said, but the school lets him take a time-out to compose himself. He's getting counseling.

His grades have fallen too low to play soccer, but if he can pull them up, he'll be the varsity goalkeeper, he said.

gale.holland@latimes.com

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