Returning players from the state champion Columbus East football team will begin working out this month with freshman players in preparation for next season.

Before they begin, veteran coach Bob Gaddis will have a talk with the upperclassmen. It won’t be about getting bigger, faster or stronger.

As it is every year, the message will be about the job of the upperclassmen to lead and assist younger players.

But in parts of the country, some interactions among student athletes have gone haywire.

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The Associated Press examined sexual violence in school sports as part of a larger look at student-on-student sex assaults. Analyzing state education records, supplemented by federal crime data, the national news agency found about 17,000 official reports of sex assaults by students in grades K-12 nationally over a recent four-year period. That figure doesn’t capture the extent of problem because attacks are widely under-reported and not all states track them or classify them uniformly, The Associated Press said.

Nor does the data paint a detailed picture of specific incidents, revealed when the AP reviewed more than 300 cases of student-on-student sexual violence that surfaced through law-enforcement records, lawsuits, interviews and news accounts. In those cases, the sports setting emerged as a leading venue for such attacks.

Teammate-on-teammate sexual assaults occurred in all types of sports in public schools, and experts said the more than 70 cases in five years that AP identified were the tip of the iceberg. Though largely a high school phenomenon, some cases were reported as early as middle school.

Boys made up the majority of aggressors and victims in teammate attacks, records show, and some suffered serious injury and trauma, The Associated Press said.

The mission for local school officials is to make sure that type of activity doesn’t happen in Columbus.

“I talk to them about, ‘Nobody’s here for a bad experience. Nobody’s here to get bullied. Nobody’s here to get harassed,’” Gaddis said. “It’s the job of everybody on our team that if they see anything like that happening, you have to report it to the coaches immediately.”

Similar talks happen in the other sports at East and Columbus North.

Maintaining a presence

Larry Perkinson, employee and student assistance coordinator for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., began his career 41 years ago as an English teacher. In those days people talked about the three “R”s — reading, writing and arithmetic — as the keys to a good education.

Since then, a fourth “R” — relationships — has become just as important in schools, and especially in sports.

“Our expectation is that we’re going to build positive relationships, because those bad things that happen are sometimes based on relationships that are not always good,” Perkinson said. “It has to be based on respect and trust and being honest.”

Because that respect and trust is sometimes violated by adults or by other students, or has the potential to be violated, a coach’s presence is required at all times on the athletic fields and buses and frequently in locker rooms.

That’s the same expectation Perkinson has for classrooms and hallways.

“You have to have a presence,” Perkinson said. “We have to have somebody with our young people.”

‘Education. Education’

Both East athletics director Pete Huse and Columbus North athletics director Jeff Hester discuss the schools’ anti-hazing policy with their coaches and athletes in meetings before the start of each school year.

North has invited Perkinson to speak to athletes in all sports when they gather at the beginning of the school year in August. He covers the corporation’s substance abuse policy and hazing policy.

Hester created a three-minute video on proper locker room etiquette, where football and girls basketball players show what to do and what not to do in the locker room. Coaches of every North team are required to show that video to their athletes. Hester said the key to preventing incidents is being vigilant at supervising.

“We focus so much on that because a coach could be in the locker room supervising and step out for a moment, and things could happen,” Hester said. “I tell the coaches, ‘I don’t expect you to stand there and watch the kids get dressed and things like that,’ but I do expect them to continuously walk through so the kids never know when the coach is coming in.”

Huse said he can’t be at every single practice that is taking place among East’s 20 sports teams, but he stresses supervision when he meets with coaches. He said he trusts that his coaches are taking anti-hazing and anti-bullying seriously.

“We really hit home (on) supervision in locker rooms,” Huse said. “Move about and listen and talk to kids about the standards. Education. Education. Education.”

Usually, if Huse hears about a hazing incident that happened at another school, he sends out reminders to his coaches.

That happened last year when Wood Memorial High School in southwestern Indiana ended up canceling its football season after several team members were involved in a hazing incident during the preseason.

“Most of the time, it goes unreported,” Gaddis said. “Somebody knew it was going on, but nobody tells anybody. I tell that to our kids all the time — it’s unfortunate that Wood Memorial had to deal with that, but somebody knew it was going on. Go tell the coaches. It’s on us then to report it.”

East senior basketball player Thomas Myers said players sometimes playfully joke around in the locker room, but nothing serious.

“We don’t tolerate anybody picking on anybody,” Myers said. “We make sure nothing goes on.”

Taking proactive steps

Hazing isn’t limited to boys sports teams. Sometimes, it happens on girls squads, as well.

In an effort to prevent that, East volleyball coach Stacie Pagnard lets her players take ownership of their locker room, from being able to decorate it how they want to allowing them to spend free time during the school day there. Players sometimes go there to eat lunch or study.

“We talk about it being like their escape a little bit,” Pagnard said. “They’re really good about making sure that place is just them, and it’s just our family, our volleyball kids in there. We really preach relationships, and ‘Treat others how you want to be treated, do what champions do, do what’s right’ and make sure that we are holding ourself to the highest standards.”

But just in case, Pagnard’s office is right beside the locker room, and she makes frequent trips to supervise not only the volleyball locker room, but the adjoining girls basketball and gymnastics locker rooms.

Seven East and seven North head coaches of girls sports teams are males.

When Pat McKee took over as North girls basketball coach in 2010, he made sure he had at least a couple of women on his staff to help supervise female athletes.

McKee tries to have a minimum of two adults with students at all practices or other team events, and at least one adult female in locker room settings. He enters the locker room only when another adult female is present and ensures that the players are dressed.

“We’re trying to make sure that everything is appropriate at all times,” McKee said. “If they feel that something inappropriate occurs, they have a direction to report that.”

Hazing can make a team member feel like an outcast. Instead, local girls teams work to create an inclusive environment for all players.

Members of the North girls basketball team — both upperclassmen and underclassmen — often travel together and sit together at boys basketball games and other Bull Dog events.

This year’s seniors were included in those group outings when they were younger, and now they want to make sure the underclassmen on this year’s team are included as well.

“We try to include everybody and make sure everybody feels like they’re part of the team,” senior Kenzie Patberg said. “We want to make it a family atmosphere.”

Senior Liz Tynan is a three-sport athlete who plays soccer and basketball and runs track. She agreed with Patberg about the basketball team being like a family.

“We’re pretty blessed to have a close-knit group,” Tynan said. “We’re all friends. We just like to make sure everyone is included.”

Travel team trials

Travel team and club sports aren’t immune to hazing, so coaches have to find a way to prevent that from happening on their watch.

North baseball coach Ben McDaniel also has coached an Evoshield Canes Midwest travel team the past six years. The program has players from Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan.

With the high school program, McDaniel has an office above the Bull Dogs locker room at Southside Elementary, while another coach has an office inside the locker room. But the travel team is much different in that it plays in tournaments all over the country and does not have a home field or locker room.

McDaniel’s travel teams do not travel together. Players are responsible for their own transportation to the tournaments, usually with their parents. The players stay in hotel rooms with their families.

“I know there are several programs out there where programs travel together and stay in hotels together,” McDaniel said. “I’ve never done that. I did not want that responsibility.”

Reporting abuse

The state didn’t specifically ask for schools to report bullying data until the 2015-16 school year. Prior to that, there was no specific code for bullying, but there was a code for intimidation.

In the 2012-13 school year, BCSC had 131 recorded instances of intimidation. Those numbers went down to 112 in 2013-14 and 61 in 2014-15.

The next year, the first year bullying was documented, BCSC had eight documented instances. That went up to 21 last year, and there have been 11 recorded instances so far this school year.

How many of those numbers are athletic-related are not specified. However, neither Hester nor Huse can recall any incidents involving their athletics programs in the past three years.

In the BCSC system, if Perkinson hears of any student being abused, whether it be by an employee or another student, he calls child protection and law enforcement.

“We’re not training investigators,” Perkinson said. “We call immediately.”

BCSC has been doing criminal background checks on all employees, including coaches, many of whom are hired under contracts but do not teach, for more than 10 years now.

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the Indiana Department of Education wanted somebody from each school corporation in the state to be trained to review safety plans. They meet two to four times a year and talk about everything from school shooters to hazing and sexual harassment to child-protection laws.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s an invaluable part of your training,” Perkinson said. “I just hope that our kids and our coaches are doing great things out there every day.”

At issue

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. Policy 5516 deals with student hazing and bullying.

The policy defines hazing as “performing any act or coercing another, including the victim, to perform any act of initiation into any class, group or organization that causes or creates a substantial risk of causing mental, emotional or physical harm. Permission, consent or assumption of risk by an individual subjected to hazing shall not lessen the prohibitions contained in this policy.”

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.