Are Calls for Good Behavior Enough to Influence Young Athletes? has partnered with LexisNexis to bring you this content.

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The Press Enterprise
September 29, 2013, Sunday
1440 words

Sex-crime charges against two former members of Vista Murrieta High School's football team are the most recent in a string of cases nationwide this year in which authorities say male athletes assaulted younger classmates.

Experts said stronger messages are needed to make student athletes aware they could cause great and lasting harm to others and face life-changing criminal charges and possible incarceration when their actions cross the line.

While school districts can't control off-campus behavior, efforts have been made to formalize long-taught lessons about athletes' image and responsibility. In recent years, athletic directors have been given administrator status on campuses; they have more authority over programs and coaching staffs.

Codes of conduct, including one by the California Interscholastic Federation's Southern Section, are signed by students and their parents or caregivers. While the CIF document mostly focuses on playing-field behavior and refraining from substance and steroid abuse, it also refers to "proper conduct on and off the playing field."

"With every privilege goes responsibility. The conduct of a Bronco athlete is closely observed by many people. An athlete is a representative of a team, the school and the community. Therefore, it is important that a Bronco athlete be at all times and in all places a gentleman or lady," reads a welcome note on the athletics home page on Vista Murrieta's website.

At Riverside Unified School District, student athletes are told, "You have a responsibility to your teammates. …What you do as an individual can affect the team - you owe a certain allegiance," school board member Tom Hunt said.

Before charges were filed in September in the Vista Murrieta cases:

Authorities in Massachusetts said three Somerville High School boys soccer team members, one 17 and two age 16, sexually assaulted another boy with a broomstick at a camp retreat in late August, then threatened the victim and witnesses to stay quiet about it.

In February, sexual assault charges were filed against four high school football players in Torrington, Conn. Two, who were 18 and charged as adults, have pleaded guilty. The other two were 17 and charged as minors. Authorities said the cases involved different 13-year-old girls.

And there is the high-profile case of two star players on the Steubenville, Ohio, high school football team, convicted earlier this year of raping a passed-out 16-year-old girl during and after a drunken party in 2012. The case got international attention after several images and a video of the unconscious, naked girl - and derisive comments about her - made their way onto social media.

The cases are far from identical, but the common thread is male-dominated sports.

"A disproportionate number of these cases involve student athletes," observed UC Riverside Anthropology Professor Christine Ward Gailey.

A combination of locker-room bravado and the status of being an athlete, especially on a school's football team, can sometimes lead to bad consequences, said Stanford Law School Professor Robert Weisberg.

"If you get a toxic brew of factors, then I think otherwise law-abiding, reasonable people become sociopathic - they experience a loss of human empathy and tend to view other human beings … as less than human," he said in a phone interview.

Weisberg said focusing on winning and team spirit isn't where the blame sits. Most athletes go through high school programs with good experiences and no problems, but an overdriven sense of entitlement can push some young people over the line, he said.

"It's more likely to happen in team sports if you have an exclusively male context, where there is a kind of social permission to talk crudely, and the particular sport is associated with muscularity or power. In certain contexts, these people have some elite status," Weisberg said.

Few details are available about the Vista Murrieta cases. Police have said that all of the accusers were students in the Murrieta Valley Unified School District, and that the alleged actions took place away from campus. Girls younger than 14 were involved in the separate cases.

Kishawn Tre Holmes, a star running back with the nationally ranked Vista Murrieta Broncos, is charged with counts involving six alleged victims - two charges of forcible rape, two charges of lewd acts with a girl under 14 and three charges of false imprisonment - as well as one count of dissuading a victim from reporting a crime.

His hearing earlier this month was closed to the public. He remains in juvenile custody and his next court appearance is Oct. 30. His attorney declined to talk to reporters.

Byron K. Holt, who had been a defensive lineman, faces a different set of charges - lewd acts with a girl under the age of 14 and unlawful sex with a minor. Holt was released to his family after his first juvenile hearing on Sept. 17.

Holmes and Holt have been off Vista Murietta's team since August.

Karen Parris, spokeswoman for the Murrieta Valley Unified School District, said along with its statement of expectations, the school has a behavior code for its athletes.

The code warns of avoiding criminal activity. Disciplinary actions for athletes range from probation to removal from one or more scheduled contests to "referral for assessment and/or treatment of any alcohol/drug violation and/or any criminal activity;" and removal from the team.

The degree of action depends on the circumstances and the type of infraction, Parris said.

"The alleged incidents did occur off campus," she said. "We do have policies and procedures in place and of course we encourage them to follow them off campus as well, but that is not something the school district can control."

The nearby Lake Elsinore Unified School District's three high schools have had an athlete uniform code of conduct for the past three years, and the individual schools had similar rules for several preceding years before they were unified, said Mark Williams, an assistant vice principal in charge of athletic activities and facilities. He said parents and students sign off on the rules.

"We have high standards and we do have consequences," said Williams, who has been a teacher, coach and administrator in the Lake Elsinore district for 33 years.

"You're dealing with teenage boys and girls, and they don't always make the best decisions," Williams said. "Part of our job is to get them to think before they take actions."

Williams said a first infraction brings a 15-day exclusion from an activity or team, followed by 30 days for the second, 60 days for the third and "for the fourth, they are done."

Weisberg and Gailey suggested that if parents and school officials don't already do so, they should talk specifically about criminal behavior and consequences.

Authorities in California can file a misdemeanor charge for a minor having consensual sex with another minor, and it can be a felony if the age difference is more than three years.

"I think in very narrow contexts, like athletic locker rooms … you can scare or shame athletes out of doing this, if you are fairly blunt. Sometimes the best way to make people more moral is to scare them, to tell them 'If you get rough with women in a situation, there is a good chance you are going to jail,'" Weisberg said.

Parents need to hear it as well, UCR's Gailey said. "A very firm no-tolerance policy and training for athletes and coaches about what constitutes date rape is truly crucial," she said.

Larry McAdara, executive director of the Riverside Area Rape Crisis Center, said there can be long-term consequences for everyone involved in sexual assault cases. "The victim feels like it is her fault somehow; there is a fear of telling her parents because they may have been somewhere doing something that they don't want their parents to know about."

School counselors are mandated reporters - they have to tell authorities about sexual assault disclosures from minors, and so girls feel unable to talk to them as well. "There's a lot of suffering in silence," McAdara said.

"Fast forward to their early 20s, and these are the people we are getting on our crisis line late at night," McAdara said.

He said the center offers high school campus programs - including My Strength for boys and Be Strong for girls - to address sexuality issues for minors.

He said the courses avoid "shock and awe" talk, but recognize the challenge: "The most frustrating part is that there is still this rite-of-passage mentality that somehow overrides what parents have tried to teach their kids about right and wrong," he said.

September 29, 2013

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