INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — An attorney for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis admits both Roncalli High School and its football coaches let down a student manager with down syndrome who, according the student’s mother, was assaulted in the school's football locker room.
"Let me be the first to acknowledge how poorly this matter has been handled," said Archdiocese attorney Jay Mercer in an Oct. 28 letter to a lawyer retained by the victim's family. Mercer went on to say the student and his parents "were let down by Roncalli and its coaches and he was not offered the safe environment that he was entitled to."
The letter, recently obtained by 13 Investigates, is the only publicly-disclosed acknowledgement that the south-side Catholic high school and Archdiocese failed to protect a student with special needs from the football players now accused of bullying and assaulting him. And it raises questions about actions taken — and not taken — by school administrators after serious allegations inside the football locker room came to light.
Videotaped in the bathroom
Lesli Woodruff said her son, Jack, dreamed of attending Roncalli High School for several years.
"That's all he'd talk about. Going to Roncalli was something very important to him," she told WTHR. "He's always just had this love and wanted to be a Rebel. We thought it would be the perfect environment for him."
Jack's dream came true last year when he enrolled as a freshman. The young man with Down syndrome loves sports, so he was thrilled to become a student manager for the Rebels football team.
But in September, Jack told his mother something strange had happened inside the football locker room: one of the players took video of him while he was using the bathroom.
"Over dinner he said 'I have to tell you something but it's disturbing,' and then he explained what happened," Woodruff said. "The football player who did this told him he was going to post it to Snapchat, so he was extremely worried that something had been put out on social media … and he would be embarrassed by it."
Woodruff immediately contacted a teacher at Roncalli's Life Academy Program for special education students. The matter was referred to the school's dean of students, who reassured Woodruff that the video had not been disseminated.
"During the discussion with the individual who took the video [he] showed me the location of the video. We then deleted the video," Roncalli dean of students Tim Crissman wrote in a Sept.10 email that Woodruff shared with WTHR. "We spent a considerable amount of time discussing the extremely poor decision making that went into the creation of the video … We have talked to the coach about the need to continuously remind players about the expectation of individual privacy within the locker room."
Despite the reassurance, Woodruff later learned from her son that other students had watched the video recorded while he was using the bathroom. She met with school officials to better determine what had happened and was disappointed to discover the football player who recorded the incident received very little punishment. She was also surprised to learn that a school administrator worked with the football player to identify the bathroom video on the student's cellphone and erase it before he or any other school officials reviewed it.
"The dean admitted that he was supposed to watch the video as part of his job, and by not doing so he left us in a position where we'd never know what was on that video because he then deleted it," Woodruff said.
Nevertheless, Jack's mom felt it was time to move on.
"We left it and we thought things were fine. And then a week later, I come home from work and there's an envelope sitting on my counter," she told WTHR. "It just catches my eye because it's a hand-written envelope with no return address. So I pick it up and I couldn't believe what I was reading.
Another locker room confrontation
The anonymous letter Woodruff received was from a parent of a Roncalli football player who had recently seen another incident in the locker room involving Jack. Woodruff described reading the letter as "the worst sucker punch I’ve ever had in my life."
"The parent's child walked in and observed Jack being made to lick the nipples of another football player prior to the homecoming game. He was being held by that player by his head against his chest," Woodruff said. The anonymous letter went on to describe other football players laughing and encouraging the behavior and "another player nearby with his shirt off and he looked like he was going to be next."
When Lesli asked her son about the alleged incident after school, he initially denied that it happened. He then broke down and started telling his mother what some of the team members did to him that day.
"I couldn't wrap my head around how they could put him in a position to do this, and he explained to us they threatened him. They told him they were going to beat him up if he didn't do it. They said they would hurt his friends and they named them by name," Woodruff said. And she said her son was told not to tell anyone else about what was happening to him in the locker room or there would be additional ramifications.
"He said they threatened to kill myself, my husband and Jack, and they described in detail how they would cut us open and kill us if he didn't follow their instructions," Jack's mother explained. "That was his punishment for telling on them and bringing to light that others had actually watched the original video of him going to the bathroom. He hasn't been the same kid since."
While talking with her son, Woodruff learned that Roncalli staff had already questioned Jack about the incident days before she received the anonymous letter. (A copy of the letter had also been mailed to the school.) And yet she said no one from the school reached out to tell her about the allegations involving Jack — not until Woodruff filed a police report with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.
That police report describes a possible assault involving forcing a child to commit fondling, and it includes four male suspects whose names have been redacted on publicly-available copies of the case report.
The very next morning, Crissman called and left Woodruff a voicemail message, stating he had received a tip about the second locker room incident and that school staff "were on top of it." He went on to say "we all invested time in it this week to try to substantiate those claims" and "were unable to support the anonymous source’s allegations."
"Nothing to see here"
An attorney hired by Jack’s family believes the school failed his clients in multiple ways.
"They don't contact the victim's mom? Why wouldn't you do that?" asked attorney Curt Johnson. "Especially when you are talking about a student with special needs, that doesn’t make any sense."
He also believes the investigation conducted by the school was far from thorough and that the school was in no hurry to find wrongdoing involving student athletes who led the Roncalli football field to success on Friday nights.
"It appears they asked some questions, but it's sort of like they got the answer they wanted and said, 'We're good. We're done. Nothing to see here,'" he said.
Johnson said what disturbs him the most is that Roncalli administrators and staff did not take action after the first locker room incident to prevent another situation just a few weeks later.
"The coaching staff of the football team certainly didn't give it the attention it needed in order to prevent this," the lawyer said. "From where we sit, it's hard to see if they did anything to protect him. That's troubling."
Also troubling, according to child safety advocates, is that there is no evidence that school or Archdiocese officials contacted Indiana Department of Child Services or police to report either of the locker room incidents.
"Anybody who sees, suspects or is told about any kind of abuse happening, they are legally mandated to report it," said Maggie Owens, program manager at the Indiana Center for Prevention of Youth Abuse and Suicide. Owens does not know about the details of what allegedly happened at Roncalli, but she does know situations involving the forced licking of another person’s body and the potential photographing of private body parts falls under the state's mandatory reporting requirement.
"Absolutely. If someone was made aware of that, they'd need to make that report. Call DCS in that situation," she said. Owens said notifying police also fulfills the duty to report an incident involving the possible abuse of a child.
School offers few answers
13 Investigates contacted Roncalli High School and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to ask questions about the locker room incidents. Archdiocese spokesman Greg Otolski asked WTHR to submit a list of questions and then responded to those questions by stating he was unable to answer any of them. Instead, Otolski sent the following statement:
"We are aware of an incident that occurred between students. A report was made to civil authorities. The Archdiocese and the school are cooperating with the authorities. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis and its schools are committed to the protection and well-being of its students."
The Archdiocese would not clarify for WTHR whether the report Otolski referenced was made by Roncalli, or whether he was alluding to the reports made by the victim's family.
While the Archdiocese is not discussing the case publicly, letters exchanged between legal counsel for the Archdiocese and the victim’s family provide valuable insight into the matter.
After stating that the issue has been handled poorly and that Roncalli and its coaches have let down Jack and his parents, Archdiocese attorney Jay Mercer wrote:
"In addition to addressing this as a legal claim, we also want to reach out to the family to offer a compassionate pastoral response. We hope that we are not too late in addressing how this matter could and should have been handled. We hope the tone of this letter demonstrates our sincerity to do some problem solving that can perhaps allow the Archdiocese and Roncalli learn from its mistakes and create a safe environment for all students with special needs."
Mercer also offered Jack's family a chance to meet with members of the Archbishop's leadership team — a meeting Johnson said his clients plan to decline due to the family’s skepticism about verbal promises.
"While we appreciate your offer to meet with the Archbishop's leadership team, we respectfully must decline the same. There is a perception that oral assurances received to date regarding this matter have not been backed up by corresponding affirmative actions to address the issues," Johnson wrote in his response.
After this story aired on WTHR, Roncalli President Joe Hollowell sent this message out to the community:
No longer a Rebel
Frustrated and angry at the school's lack of action, Woodruff decided not to send Jack back to school. She withdrew him from Roncalli a few days after learning of the second locker room incident.
That prompted a series of urgent calls from school administrators and from the Archdiocese’s victim assistance coordinator, but that outreach did not change Woodruff's mind to enroll Jack in a different school. She said it was necessary because her normally easygoing and outgoing son is now much more withdrawn and battling anxiety.
"He's in therapy, and because of how the mind works in people who have Down syndrome, he's re-living what happened in the locker room like it happened at that very moment every day. Every day," she told WTHR. "He's scared. He's afraid these boys will find out where he's at and they're going to come after him, and there's not one thing I can say as a parent to make that go away."
She's still angry that Roncalli did not do more to protect her son, even after she was assured the school was being more proactive following inappropriate locker room behavior that had already occurred.
"It was just pushed under a rug, tucked away in the hopes that we'd quietly go away," she said.
Woodruff said she and her family are not going away. They want to prevent a similar situation from happening to another student.
"At the end of the day, I'd like to see Roncalli and the Archdiocese step up and take accountability for what happened to my son," she said. "And that's really why I'm here: because I want to see something positive to come out of this."
IMPD's investigation into the locker room incidents are still ongoing.