Police are not releasing the names of high school athletes suspected of beating incoming freshman with a wooden paddle, an extreme hazing case that has spurred both a police and school investigation.
Juneau Police Department Chief Bryce Johnson said state statutes bar police from releasing the names of the suspects they’ve identified because most of them are minors. The ones who are over 18 are also protected by the law since they are considered suspects and have not been arrested or charged with a crime, he said.
“We would not release the name of someone who possibly, maybe could have (done it), but we can’t prove it,” Johnson said in an interview at the JPD station Friday. He noted, though, that police are confident about who was involved and what transpired.
The police investigation into the May 31 paddling incident stalled when victims were reluctant to come forward, possibly out of fear of retaliation or being ostracized by friends and teammates, Johnson told the Empire earlier this week. Johnson has no doubts a crime occurred and that the case would have gone to court if there were victims willing to publicly identify themselves or testify in court, he said.
Two groups of middle schoolers were kidnapped and beaten viciously with paddles at the “Pit” on Montana Creek Road and Skater’s Cabin on May 31, Juneau parents previously told the Empire on the condition of anonymity. One parents shared 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 have been used that night, a cricket bat with holes drilled through it.
The criminal investigation revealed multiple students from both high schools were responsible for the paddlings, police said. Johnson on Friday specified that they did not identify a ringleader and that their investigation did not hone in on one specific person.
“It does not appear to me that this was one person driving everything,” Johnson said. “This appears to me that it was a group that was doing it, and we did not have just one suspect. There was more than one person that we identified as being involved. It didn’t ever just focus on one single individual.”
Police at this time are refraining from disclosing how many victims the investigation identified. Johnson said they may release that information at a later date.
The Empire on Friday filed public record requests to access the police reports into the incident, as well as similar reports in the past. That’s in light of the fact that the police investigation revealed this sort of hazing behavior is deeply entrenched in Juneau’s high school culture — Johnson said it dates back at least a decade.
Because the police case is still technically open, those records are not available to the Empire. Police records in Juneau are not available to the public until a case is fully adjudicated per the police department’s internal policy, which they say is firmly rooted in state law. It’s also likely that when the records do become available, they will be redacted to protect the suspects’ privacy rights, given that most are juveniles. The city attorney could also choose to deny the records request outright for the same reason.
Police recently forwarded the case to the city attorney’s office. The city attorney can share the majority of the police case with the school district to aid in their investigation. Some portions cannot be shared because of legal issues, Johnson said.
Mark Miller, the new school district superintendent, says the district’s investigation into the allegations is already underway. Getting to the bottom of this is a top priority, he said.
“We’ve been in contact with police during their investigation,” Miller said in a phone interview Friday, noting he was briefed about the accusations prior to his recent arrival in Juneau.
“The school is taking this very seriously,” he said. “It’s something we’re putting resources toward to make sure the investigation is done properly and thoroughly. This isn’t day one. We’ve been on this for weeks.”
Miller said the investigation could wrap in a week or two. They are investigating whether the student’s actions violated the district’s disciplinary policies. If they decide it has, the district can impose administrative sanctions as outlined in the school handbook, such as suspending or expelling the students involved. The sanctions, if any, will be dependant on the individual’s involvement. Age is not a factor, he said.
“As far as school (discipline policies) are concerned, age isn’t relevant,” he said.
The school system is held to a lower level of proof than police, but it’s still a standard they have to meet, Miller said.
“Students have rights that we need to make sure are honored,” he said.
Police must be able to prove in court that a crime was committed “beyond a reasonable doubt,” whereas the school only has to find a “preponderance of the evidence” to prove a student violated the school’s policies.
When police learned that the victims in the case were unwilling to come forward and the criminal case could not proceed, police offered to address the alarming situation through remediation. Johnson said police attempted to get the suspects and victims in the same room for dispute resolution, similar to the restorative, peace circle alternative justice method that some villages in Southeast employ. The attempt failed.
“We offered some stuff like that, and no, (nobody took us up on it),” Johnson said. “We investigated and investigated and talked and talked, and at the end we kind of have to respect the wishes of the victims in the case who don’t want to proceed.”
JPD Lt. David Campbell, a spokesman for the department, said there is always a chance that the city attorney could decide to go forward with the case, even without victim cooperation. If that happened, he said, the state would probably handle the case since the District Attorney’s office handles the Department of Juvenile Justice cases.
Proceeding without victim cooperation is most frequently seen in domestic violence cases wherein the victim doesn’t want to press charges for various reasons, which typically include fear of retaliation or of losing the only source of income and shelter for themselves and children, or who maybe is blinded by love and can’t see or won’t acknowledge the violence.
“Domestic violence is the classic example where the state’s position is it’s such a big deal whether the person is a victim of DV or not wants to proceed, we’re going to proceed anyway,” Campbell said. “So it does happen. In situations like this, it doesn’t happen very often. But it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that there still could be something that comes out of it criminally.”
Campbell noted that if prosecutors decide not to press charges, the school has a wide variety of administrative actions it can take in lieu of criminal charges.
“The school has a tremendous amount of discretion to the point where even if it’s not on school grounds, if it just involves students, they can still take action,” he said. “So they have a lot of ability to take actions where we don’t.”
Johnson reiterated his hope that something can be done by the school or the community to crack down on this behavior, which he believes crosses the line from bullying to assault.
“I personally think that something ought to happen to the people that did the bullying behavior,” he said. “What that is that happens, I don’t know, but I think something ought to happen.”