The criminal investigation into reports of high school athletes being beaten with a wooden paddle, an initiation ritual that Juneau Police Chief Bryce Johnson says crosses the line between bullying and assault and has been going on for at least a decade, has ended without any arrests or criminal charges because the victims are unwilling to come forward, according to the police chief.
Johnson said investigators identified both perpetrators and victims in the case but none of the students who were paddled were willing to identify themselves publicly or testify in court at a future trial.
“We know who was there, we know who did the paddling, we know who got paddled,” Johnson told the Empire in an interview Thursday following the Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon where he was the guest speaker. “We‘re pretty comfortable we know the majority of what happened, but we don’t have any of the people who got paddled willing to be a victim and step forward and say, ‘I’m willing to testify.’”
“Even though we know what happened and we know who did what, without people willing to step forward to be witnesses and talk, we were unable to arrest and bring charges so we won’t be doing that,” he added.
Juneau parents told the Empire previously, on the condition of anonymity, that upperclassmen kidnapped two groups of underclassmen and beat them viciously with paddles on May 31. One group was taken to a site called “The Pit” at Montana Creek Road and the other to Skater’s Cabin.
One parent said their child escaped and hid in a ditch near Southeast Waffle Company and saw two of his classmates paddled. Another parent emailed the Empire a picture of her son’s wounds, which showed dark purple bruising from hip to hip. Another parent sent the Empire a picture of the paddle believed to be used that night, what looks like a cricket bat with holes drilled through it.
Despite reports that one school or another was responsible for the beatings, Johnson said the investigation revealed culprits from all three high schools in Juneau. He noted he did not know off-hand how many perpetrators, or victims, were identified.
“I think initially it was reported it was all one team. That was not the case,” he said. “It was people from both high schools so it was not just one school and one team at one school, it was a broader problem than that.”
Perhaps the most troubling thing the police investigation revealed, Johnson said, was that this type of hazing has been happening in Juneau for at least 10 years, possibly longer.
“There’s a lengthy culture and tradition of this genre of activity going on,” he said, noting the behavior needs to be stopped. “You have a cycle (where) the kids that were paddled four years ago are the ones doing it four years later.”
Johnson said there’s no doubt in his mind the hazing crosses the line into criminal activity, but without victims who step forward, there’s nothing police can do. The case has been forwarded to the city attorney’s office, who will send it back to the school district, he said. The school district can then impose sanctions it deems appropriate.
“If we had a witness that would come forward and say, ‘This happened to me at this time and I would like to press charges,’ then we think we could put together a case and do that, but we don’t have that,” he said.
The chief listed off multiple reasons why the victims in the case are not coming forward, including fear of retaliation or a fear of “ratting out” their friends and being ostracized by their teammates.
Another possibility, he said, could be warped thinking that this type of behavior is a “rite of passage” or a “badge of honor” that is something to be proud of or necessary to be accepted into the group.
“Victims make decisions for their individual lives, and we gave them the opportunity to come forward, and at the end of the day, it’s their choice whether they want to or not,” he said. “I can understand their reasons for not doing it and we’ll respect them.”
He added, “If you look at it from those people’s point of views, they looked at their life and made what they thought was the best decision for them. I’m not going to rag on the individual because I’m not making that decision. I’m not in their boots.”
Around the time of the May paddling incident, a rumor surfaced that a group of older high school girls were planning on taking freshmen girls out the road, stripping them naked, and leaving them there for the upperclassmen boys to pick up. A parent told the Empire earlier that she was shown a list of the girls who were selected for the initiation.
Johnson said JPD was not able to find evidence to support those allegations.
“We didn’t find anything to substantiate that,” he said. “Could it have happened? Yeah, it could have, but we didn’t find specifics on those allegations. We don’t have people, places, times.”
Johnson said that, in the past, high school athletes initiated the incoming class with typically harmless activities, such as going to a restaurant and having someone order gross or spicy food. With every passing year, students pushed the envelope further until finally it morphed into something criminal, he said.
“This isn’t the first year it happened,” he said of the paddling. “It happened last year, it happened the year before, it happened the year before.”
“We ought to be changing this dynamic of what’s happening,” he said.
This is a developing story. Please check back later for updates.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.