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East Carter High School: Tensions continue. Anger over Prosecutor McSpadden’s actions fuels Missouri community’s pain

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Tension high in small Missouri town

News | Published on Thursday September 6, 2007

Ellsinore, Mo. — There’s not much to the little scenic town of Ellsinore. Located in the Mark Twain National Forest in southern Missouri, it has one bank, a public park and a half dozen or so churches. With 130 employees, East Carter County R-2 School District is the county’s largest employer. The nearest hospital is 25 miles away in Poplar Bluff. There’s canoe and tubing outings for tourists in the nearby county seat of Van Buren, but the closest Wal-Mart is one county over, in Piedmont.

It’s the kind of town where everybody knows everybody else. But that’s not always a good thing.

In this tiny town, population 363, many residents are aware of an alleged hazing incident at Lyon College in Batesville.

Twenty-two boys from the East Carter County R-2 School District attended a basketball camp at Lyon June 10-13, and now six have been charged with hazing. The victims’ families are saying it was more than hazing, however — and they want justice for their boys.

“The tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife,” said one of the parents, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions.

“Parents are pitted against parents. Boys are afraid to go to school. Boys are making remarks on the baseball field. Fights are breaking out all over town.”

The parent said she isn’t sure how many boys will go out for the Redbirds basketball team this year, but the six alleged perpetrators have been suspended for 180 days (this year’s school year has 174 days scheduled). If they are found guilty, they will be expelled, she said.

The first hazing report came into the Independence County Sheriff’s Office the week after the basketball camp ended.

On June 18, a parent told Cpl. Bobby Moser her 14-year-old son had been sexually assaulted by another student at the camp.

Moser also spoke with another mother who said her son had been assaulted by the same 17-year-old suspect, and the suspect had assaulted at least nine boys who attended the camp.

The next day, on June 19, Independence County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Leonard received a phone call to make contact with another parent whose two sons had attended the basketball camp the week before. The parent said his son told him an older student had come in his room, put him in a corner, pulled his pants down and assaulted him.

At least nine boys were reportedly assaulted at the camp, according to sheriff’s reports. One of the alleged incidents was caught on video on a cell phone, reports state.

Lt. Brenda Bittle interviewed several of the parents. One said her 14-year-old son was held down and the assaulted, and that he witnessed another student being assaulted, Bittle said in a report.

Another parent told Bittle that her son’s behavior had changed since the camp. Whereas he used to enjoy playing with a 2-year-old family member, he now lashed at the child when the toddler touched his face.

Bittle said the mother asked her son what was wrong, and he replied, “Mom, you know, I seen a lot of it.”

One of the boys told Bittle he had gone through “the same ‘initiation’ that all the other boys at the Lyon College basketball camp did,” but the parent interviewed by the Guard said she had not heard reports of any other hazing incidents before this year. But one thing is for certain: It has changed the lives of the boys involved.

Benji Stahl resigned last month as boys basketball coach at East Carter, which has an enrollment of 750. Preston Hoagland from the Winona School District was hired.

Because the alleged perpetrators are all juveniles, the records are sealed and they have not been identified.

But the parent who spoke to the Guard by telephone said the parents of the six older boys are upset that this will follow them around and ruin their lives.

“It’s all in who you talk to,” the parent said, adding, “The majority of the town is backing the victims.”

Ellsinore is a small town, she noted, and there are some residents who have said this was just a hazing, and that “boys will be boys.”

But then there is another side, one that does not subscribe to the belief that what happened in that Lyon College dorm was merely a rite of passage. “It wasn’t just boys being boys — it was absolutely more than that,” the parent said.

When filing hazing charges, Prosecuting Attorney Don McSpadden said the reason he didn’t file them as a sex crime was because “There appeared to be no sexual gratification, just boys being mean.”

He reiterated that statement to the Guard Tuesday, explaining that the charges are misdemeanors.

“What really kicked us in the gut was Mr. McSpadden’s comment it was just boys being mean,” the mother said. “That had us reeling. Believe me, I can assure you it was more than boys being mean. … We just couldn’t believe he would say that. … We don’t understand it.”

She asked, “What if it was one of their kids?”

She said the six have a court date set for Monday, and she hopes to be in Batesville that day.

“I would have never dreamed in a million years this would happen to us,” she said. “I don’t ever want another parent to go through what I’ve gone through, ever. Never. It’s emotionally draining; it’s heartbreaking.”

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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