Settlement reached in Hamilton High (Arizona) football sexual assault civil lawsuit

Photo: Diego Mendoza-Moyers/The Republic

Settlement reached in Hamilton High (Arizona) football sexual assault civil lawsuit

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Settlement reached in Hamilton High (Arizona) football sexual assault civil lawsuit

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The Chandler Unified School District and Hamilton High School employees accused of allowing students to sexually, physically and emotionally abuse their football teammates have reached a settlement in the civil lawsuit, according to court records.

A lawsuit was filed on the behalf of five students in May 2018 claiming the students had been abused by members of the Hamilton football team and alleging that the school did not take the necessary actions to protect them.

A draft of the terms of the civil settlement was signed in federal district court on Monday. According to a minute entry, the settlement was not recorded and no document is available to the public at this time.

The exact details of the settlement are unknown, but it does not include other defendants in the case — including accused students.

According to court records, once the paperwork is filed, the civil case will be dismissed against the school district, former Hamilton High School principal Ken James, former athletic director Shawn Rustad, former football coach Steve Belles and former coach Manuel Palomarez.

The students’ lawyer, Dan Raynak, told The Arizona Republic, he couldn’t provide a statement at this time.

The attorneys representing both the school district and former staff did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

What were the allegations?

The lawsuit alleged that upperclassmen on the football team attacked younger teammates multiple times from 2015-2017 on school grounds.

Players engaged in what they called “initiation” rituals aimed primarily at freshman players, according to police interviews with witnesses and the targeted students.

In most cases, a group of upperclassmen would hold a younger player and penetrate him with fingers or objects. Sometimes the incidents would be recorded and shared among friends, according to police documents.

School personnel, among other mandatory reporters, must notify law enforcement if they reasonably believe a child has been abused.

One of the students claimed Palomarez saw him being attacked in 2017 but the coach did not stop it. The lawsuit states the student reported the abuse to Rustad and nothing was done.

According to the lawsuit, Palomarez admitted to law enforcement he knew the abuse was happening among the players since 2016. The lawsuit stated that parents and students reported abuse to staff but their claims were dismissed.

“In or about September 2016, Defendant S. Belles told his players not to ‘do sexual things to each other,'” the lawsuit stated.

According to the lawsuit, Rustad received an anonymous voicemail message about the abuse but he did not report the claim.

Palomarez still works at Hamilton as a teacher.

Belles, Rustad and James were reassigned to non-teaching duties in September 2017. Belles resigned in 2018.

Rustad is currently the school district’s director of secondary of education. James is the district’s executive director of education programs.

Criminal case

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office chose to not pursue charges against school administrators even though police said there was evidence of them failing to report the abuse.

Chandler police recommended to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office that criminal charges be brought against James, Belles and Rustad.

Chandler police said many of the sexual assaults could have been prevented if school officials who knew about them had followed the law.

“Had these offenses been properly reported it is possible that many of the sexual assaults would not have occurred,” Amanda Janssen, the Chandler Police Department’s lead investigator on the case, wrote in a report.

Former County Attorney Bill Montgomery said during a news conference in 2018 that not enough victims came forward to make a strong case.

Three teenagers were charged in connection with the allegations. Two 16-years-old were prosecuted as minors.

One student, Nathaniel Thomas, who was 17 when he was arrested, was charged as an adult. Thomas was charged with sexual assault, kidnapping, aggravated assault and child molestation.

His trial is scheduled for January.

Stay up-to-date on the trial at The Arizona Republic.

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