Ariz. police seeks charges against Hamilton principal, former football coach in hazing scandal

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Ariz. police seeks charges against Hamilton principal, former football coach in hazing scandal

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Ariz. police seeks charges against Hamilton principal, former football coach in hazing scandal

Chandler (Ariz.) police are recommending criminal charges against Hamilton High School Principal Ken James and former Hamilton football head coach Steve Belles, saying they failed to report violent hazing incidents involving team members to law enforcement.

James and Belles could face charges of non-compliance with a “duty to report” law and also child abuse, Chandler police Sgt. Daniel Mejia said.

RELATED: Belles opens up about hazing scandal and takes responsibility

A charging decision will be made by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

Police are recommending they each be charged in the ongoing investigation into the Hamilton football program, said Amanda Jacinto, County Attorney’s Office spokeswoman.

“The investigation continues into conduct that is well beyond any legitimate activity involved in a football program,” Jacinto said.

Three teenagers already face charges in the case, which police say involved attacks on four victims younger than 15 who were members of the football program at the hands of other team members.

RELATED: Sex assaults in high school sports minimized as ‘hazing’

Police and the Chandler Unified School District officials have said a third party alerted them in February about the attacks, which are believed to have occurred from September 2015 to January 2017.

The probable-cause statement that outlines reasons police are seeking the charges against James and Belles says the two knew about the alleged assaults but did not contact law enforcement. Instead, they opted to investigate matters themselves, the document says.

Educators are required by law to report all known or suspected cases of child abuse or neglect. It is not their job to determine whether the allegations are valid.

Chandler Unified School District’s guideline for reporting states that when a district employee has reasonable belief that a child may be a victim of child abuse, the employee must “immediately, within reason,” contact appropriate child protective or law enforcement agencies.

According to the district’s policy, which was provided to The Republic, school personnel are not allowed to notify parents or other school staff members that a report has been made.

That responsibility lies with child protective services or law enforcement.

Each school has a designated staff member to act as a coordinator to work these allegations. If a third party informs school personnel that a child may be the victim of abuse or neglect, the third party should be directed to speak with the school child abuse coordinator, the policy reads.

The police document says parents first contacted James about the allegations in November 2016. It cites a follow-up meeting at which parents told James that a boy claimed he “had fingers placed in his mouth and ‘things’ in his rectum,” according to the police statement.

James then held a meeting with the boy, who did not disclose any assault or incident to him, police state in the document.

Officials said James kept handwritten notes of the meeting, which were found by investigators when executing a search warrant on June 1. James wrote the words “hazing at camp” with the boy’s name, the document states.

The probable-cause statement also said an anonymous caller left a message for James in January noting that juvenile football players were being “picked on or harassed” in the locker room. James then interviewed four boys in the football program.

The police probable-cause statement said, “One of the students disclosed being held down and their clothes removed. Another student disclosed a juvenile’s pants were pulled down and a third student disclosed that one of the victims in this investigation was being harassed.”

James did not notify the boys’ parents or police about his meetings with students, even though he had received training from the Chandler Unified School District on mandatory reporting laws, according to the police statement.

“This failure to act allowed the circumstances to exist under which three separate juvenile victims were either physically or sexually assaulted in the locker room at Hamilton High School between November of 2016 and January of 2017. It is likely these incidents could have been prevented with earlier police intervention,” the probable cause statement said.

The police paperwork said that James instead sent word to then-Hamilton head football coach Steve Belles instructing him to address his team’s behavior, going against the district policy of notifying another district employee.

The probable cause statement said Belles also had received training from the district about mandatory reporting laws, but Belles did not report his knowledge to the Chandler Police Department.

Several football players reported that Belles warned the team against “sexual hazing,” according to the police statement. Players recalled specific quotes from the coach, who told them to “stop raping each other” and “don’t do sexual things to each other,” the statement said.

Police said Belles had made comments in this vein as early as September 2016 and continued until Feb. 10.

Another player told investigators he was at a meeting in May 2016 at which Belles made similar statements.

Six teens were arrested March 29 at the school, and three eventually were charged.

One player, Nathaniel William Thomas, 17, was charged as an adult with sexual assault and multiple counts of molestation, kidnapping and aggravated assault involving alleged attacks on three victims.

He was released from the Maricopa County Lower Buckeye Jail on April 6 after posting a $25,000 bond.

Thomas, a student at both Hamilton and Chief Hill Learning Academy, was listed as a defensive back on the 2016 Hamilton football roster but was not among regular starters.

Two 16-year-old players are being charged as juveniles for kidnapping, aggravated assault and assault.

James’ only comment Monday was: “We cannot say anything at this time.”

Chandler Unified School District spokesman Terry Locke confirmed the district was notified about the recommended charges against James late Monday afternoon.

Locke said James will continue in his position while the County Attorney’s Office reviews the recommendationsBelles was removed from football coaching duties for the school year but remains at the school as a teacher.

The two, Locke said to The Republic in a statement Tuesday, “remain innocent until proven guilty.”

“The District understands that the recommended charges relate to the state’s mandatory reporting statute,” the statement said. “The District reiterates the presumption of innocence that applies to these circumstances, and has no further comment on the matter.”

Contacted Monday, Belles deferred to his attorney, Dennis Wilenchik. He said he had not seen any information about the Chandler police submission.

“All I can say about it is we’ll have to take a hard look at it and see what they’re recommending and why,” Wilenchick said.

“My client is totally above-board and would never condone any of this conduct,” he said. “I’ve not seen any actual hard evidence that my client has seen seen any of the activities or was forewarned of it. This is a good man who is being vilified based on hearsay and innuendo.”

Belles told Sports360AZ host Brad Cesmat in May that his responsibility as coach leaves him ultimately responsible.

“I was the captain of the ship. I’m the one being held responsible. That’s just the way it goes when you’re the guy in charge,” Belles said.

Locke said that the district has taken measures to address the safety of student-athletes.

“This includes increased adult supervision in the locker room, hazing-prevention discussions and videos and discussions about the importance of reporting to a responsible adult any safety concern,” he said.

Current Hamilton Coach Dick Baniszewski, who took over the team at the start of spring practice, said he wasn’t aware of the new Chandler police report.

“Just focused on student-athletes and football,” he said.

Anyone who was subjected to hazing activities at Hamilton High School is encouraged to notify the Chandler Police Department.

For more, visit azcentral.com

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