Harassment controversy surrounds Fishers High School swim team

Fishers High School students alleging harassment by a male member of swim team.

FISHERS, Ind. (WTHR) – Members of the Fishers High School girls swim team say it has been a very difficult season.

“It's been a struggle,” said senior swimmer Anna Meyer told WTHR.

“I got very depressed,” explained junior teammate Kyla Srncik.

“For me, I mentally shut down,” added junior Hanna Pratt.

They are not talking about what happened during their swim meets, but rather what they’ve endured outside the pool. The girls say they received sexually explicit or violent text messages from a male teammate. Those texts are now at the center of a school district investigation and a growing controversy impacting Fishers High School, one of the state’s most talented swimmers, and the organization that oversees high school athletic competition in Indiana.

The investigation

A group of FHS swimmers and their parents met with 13 Investigates to explain the controversy that erupted just days before the sectional and state swim meets.

Three of those female swimmers told WTHR they began receiving disturbing texts from their teammate early in the school year.

“He would start saying these really abusive things about girls,” explained Srncik. “He would also say violent things he would do to other people that wasn't sexual -- violent things about the school.”

“There were nights I’d come home from swim practice and just go to my room and not come out til the next morning,” added Pratt, unable to hold back tears. “It just mentally took a toll on me, and it's not something I want any girl to go through.”

“He was saying what he'd like to do if he could to me. The situation was escalating, and we thought we should do something about it,” said Meyer.

In early December, months after the texts began, several swimmers took their concerns to a teacher, who immediately reported the texts to Hamilton Southeastern Schools. While the school district launched a Title IX investigation, the student in question was not allowed to participate with the swim team and was required to do his school work at home.

Late last month HSE issued its findings. WTHR did not receive a copy of the confidential Title IX report issued by the school district, but 13 Investigates has obtained letters that HSE sent to the families of some female swimmers. Those letters state, “The school district found "substantiated cases of harassment" that "caused a significant disruption within the swim program." According to Dr. Erica Buchanan-Rivera, HSE’s Title IX coordinator, those distractions turned the school pool into a "hostile environment."

In her January 28 letters to parents, Buchanan-Rivera wrote, "the swim environment cannot be altered in a way to mitigate the hostile environment or potential for future harassment.” She concluded, “As a result of the hostile environment and fear exhibited by female swimmers, [the male student] will not be allowed to swim or compete with the Fishers High School swim team."

Letter to parents from Dr. Erica Buchanan-Rivera - Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer Title IX Coordinator

But two weeks later, swimmers and parents say they were shocked to learn the school district had reversed course. The same student who was supposedly barred from swimming, for engaging in sexual harassment of his teammates, was back in the pool for the sectional swim meet in Hamilton County, competing and winning events for Fishers High School.

Waiver granted

So how did a swimmer who was essentially barred from his swim team for most of the season get cleared to compete in the sectional swim meet? Technically, he had not competed in the minimum number of events to even qualify for post-season competition. Indiana High School Athletic Association Rule 50-4 requires student athletes to swim in at least 75 percent of their school’s scheduled swim meets to participate in sectionals.

IHSAA says Fishers High School principal Jason Urban and athletic director Rob Seymour personally called to request the male student be granted a waiver to compete at the sectional tournament just days before the swim meet.

IHSAA Rule 50-4

In order for a student to qualify for participation in the IHSAA tournament series in an Individual Sport (cross country, golf, tennis, swimming & diving, track & field and wrestling) the student must have participated, during the preceding regular season in a minimum of seventy-five percent (75%) of the Season Contests in which the student’s school participated, and twenty-five percent (25%) of the maximum number of authorized Season Contests in that sport.

-This requirement by the Commissioner can be waived provided the student can demonstrate that the reason the student did not participate in the minimum number of Season Contests was because of illness, injury, ineligibility or because of circumstances beyond the control of the student, such as illness, injury, the cancellation of a Contest(s) or the student’s failure to qualify for a spot on the roster.

"I think it puts everybody in a terrible situation,” said IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox, who spoke with FHS administrators about the waiver request. “You suspend a kid for something you think is so egregious that he gets four days out-of-school suspension and he's removed from the team. And then, despite the egregious behavior, they feel it necessary to relax the suspension and ask us to waive the rules. When you write a letter to your patrons saying the student is suspended for the season, then you have to stand by that and not pull this crap."

Sectional swim meet at HSE.

Asked why he agreed to approve the request, Cox said his role is to support member high schools. He told WTHR he had no choice but to approve the waiver request, even though the male FHS swimmer had not competed in the required number of season events.

“This whole thing is about a school that exercised discipline, then they relent and ask the association on the day of the sectional deadline to waive the rule,” Cox said. “I’ve got a principal and an athletic director petitioning me to waive the rule, so I waived the rule. I’m following the bylaws. Student and fan behavior in every aspect is the direct responsibility of the principal.”

After the sectional swim meet began, HSE sent another letter to parents of the female swimmers. Superintendent Allen Bourff wrote he had determined that the swim environment could be altered to allow the male student to compete “when he is not competing with the girl’s team and is able to follow the non-contact directive” that the school had imposed to limit interaction between the swimmer and his female teammates. Because the girl’s swim team had already completed its sectional and state tournaments, the superintendent decided he would no longer prohibit the boy from competition.

Letter to parents from Allen B. Bourff, Ed.D. - Superintendent, Hamilton Southeastern Schools

The decision does not sit well with many female members of the swim team and their parents.

Parents of female swimmers involved in the Title IX investigation.

“Tuesday night when she came home from swim practice, I had to tell her I got a phone call that he’d be competing, and she immediately broke down,” said Stacy Pratt, Hannah’s mother. “ I was stunned. I thought this can’t even be real. We had a document stating he would not return. It’s dishonest and it’s embarrassing.”

“I think it’s disgusting. I was so mad when I found out. I was shocked,” echoed Srncik. “They’re basically saying it’s OK what he did. They’re saying our voices don’t matter.”

More than 50 people – including members of the FHS girl’s swim team – held a protest outside the sectional swim finals Saturday afternoon at Hamilton Southeastern High School, demonstrating their disappointment and frustration with the school district. The girls then went inside to support their male teammates, even though it meant having to watch another swimmer who, according to the school’s investigation, sent them disturbing and harassing texts.

“I just felt a lot of trust lost in the school and with our principal and our athletic director,” Meyer told WTHR. “I thought they were looking out for us more than they were. It hurt a lot.”

Protest outside sectional meet.

His side of it

The controversy playing out in Hamilton County has been devasting to the swimmer accused of harassment, according to the boy’s attorney.

Attorney Bradley Keffer - Keffer Barnhart LLP

“This young man is a student athlete and a scholar. He’s got an above 4.0 grade point average, and he’s never been in trouble with the law,” said lawyer Bradley Keffer. “In this case, an individual’s life, his future, his academic and athletic career hang in the balance. To have this young man villainized is perhaps the most terrible part of all this.”

Keffer says the teenager is a gifted swimmer who has accepted an offer to swim competitively at a major university. He believes HSE prematurely sent letters announcing his client would not be allowed to rejoin the Fishers High School swim team because the Title IX appeal process had not yet run its course.

“Findings are subject to review by the school district at its highest levels and that had not yet happened,” he said.

The attorney also told 13 Investigates that FHS female swimmers offered the school district and WTHR text messages that were out of order and out of context. He disputed allegations that the text messages sent by his client were harassing or violent in nature.

“The texts you’ve been provided are not complete,” he said. “The text conversations that formed the basis of this investigation were private and consensual. These individuals have not been harmed by my client in any way whatsoever. He violated no rule. He’s violated no school policy, He’s broken no law.”

The school district appears to dispute that statement. In his letter to parents Friday afternoon, the superintendent said he had reviewed the evidence and additional information submitted by the boy’s legal counsel and had affirmed the school district’s investigation that substantiated three allegations of sexual harassment against the male swimmer.

Monday afternoon, 13 Investigates reviewed hundreds of texts sent to and from the boy in their full, unedited context. Those text messages include the male swimmer discussing committing violent acts against female classmates, talking about being a danger to himself and others, and dismissing claims that he was sexually harassing female swimmers.

Female swimmers say that is why they are speaking up.

“I didn’t want this to happen to anyone else, to happen to other girls. I want my teammates to be safe,” said Meyer.

“As much as it’s hurt all the individuals involved, it’s brought us together as a team because we know we can rely on each other,” added Pratt.

Appealing the school's decision

Several parents for the female swimmers have appealed the school’s decision to allow the male swimmer to compete in post-season swim meets.

A decision by the school board is expected on that appeal as early as Tuesday afternoon, and it could impact whether the swimmer is allowed to compete at the state championship meet later this week.

HSE issued the following statement to WTHR regarding the controversy:

“We understand peoples’ desire for more information about incidents that happen in our district, but we are strictly prohibited by federal law from releasing any information about any of the involved parties. In all situations involving allegations of student misconduct, our schools are guided by two principles – the safety and security of all students involved and the right to privacy afforded to them by law. Our process for responding to reports of harassment includes a thorough investigation and on-going support for the well-being of all involved. This includes continued monitoring and taking into account any changing dynamics. We believe we have proceeded with this situation in the same manner.”

WTHR is not naming the male swimmer because he has not been charged with a crime.