La Vernia sex scandal investigation continues as school year nears

No news from Texas Rangers and Attorney General

Federal Judge Orlando L. Garcia grants court extension

The Superintendent of a south Texas school district mired in the controversy of a king-size sex scandal responded Tuesday to a local news report regarding the “alleged hazing and sexual assault court case pending” with the district.

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Dr. Jose H. Moreno, in a letter to La Vernia Community, stated the district “strongly believes in transparency in its operations but also recognizes that some information is protected by law. I say this because a news report was aired last night on WOAI Channel 4 in reference to a Public Information Requests (PIR) submitted by them…”

La Vernia ISD Superintendent Dr. Jose H. Moreno (LVISD)

During the spring and summer, community leaders and churches united to organize events to lift the spirits of citizens. Prayer gathering, music in the park, and other services offered hope, healing and positive news. But as the 2017-2018 school year approaches, some in the community are becoming anxious for their students and educators.

“We all want it to go away, but it won’t go away until the Texas Rangers and Attorney General act.”

“Depending on who you talk to, we are either divided or united about all of this,” a parent told NEWS LEGIT. “I have friends that act like it never happened. They won’t even talk about it. They are in denial. There are others who who are very angry and outraged. They’re not going to let this get covered up under the rug. We all want it to go away, but it won’t go away until the Texas Rangers and Attorney General act. Are we going to be forced to keep this stigma over our heads after the new year starts? We need–we deserve answers. We want truth.”

Walsh Gallegos law firm offers legal guides and advice to educators, such as their Extracurricular Code of Conduct. (Walsh Gallegos)

Moreno clarified that the school district was not suing the Texas Attorney General (AG), will release information the AG deemed as public information, and will “comply with all laws required concerning the Public Information requests.”

The school district hired the law firm of Walsh Gallegos Trevino Russo & Kyle P.C. to take “an active role helping us navigate through the litigation process and ensuring we are in compliance with all laws,” Moreno stated.

The firm, started in 1983, is notable for their knowledge and litigation in public education. They are often presenters of legal information at meetings of the Regional Advisory Committee of Education Service Center, Region 20. Superintendents and officials in the region include such districts as Boerne, Carrizo Springs, Floresville, Harlandale, Judson, Kerrville, South San, South Side and others, including La Vernia ISD.

The Case

A lawsuit against the District was filed in federal court on April 11, 2017 by parents a La Vernia rape victim seeking monetary damages after 10 students were arrested on widespread sexual hazing charges regarding the boy’s high school athletic program. Later, three more students were charged. The suit indicated the “hazing rituals and traditions are a form of bullying and have been part of the culture of the School’s football team for at least a decade, according to news accounts, and possibly longer.”

“The teams’ coaches have sanctioned these rituals, while other school officials, including La Vernia ISD and the School’s principal, athletic director, and coaches, turned a blind eye toward the abuse, even after the abuse was reported to them.” –La Vernia sex scandal lawsuit

Attorney J.K. Ivey filed the lawsuit on behalf of a La Vernia student.

“Indeed, the Plaintiffs are but a fraction of the students who have been physically and sexually assaulted pursuant to these sadistic hazing rituals which include rape, sodomy, unlawful sexual penetration, and sexual abuse. In addition to seeking damages to compensate Plaintiffs for their psychological injuries, CHILD DOE, who still attends the School, also seek injunctive relief that will put an end to the hazing rituals, so that neither they nor future members of the School’s football team will be subjected to the same abuses Plaintiffs have suffered.”

On April 27, 2017 official court summons were issued to the La Vernia ISD, Jose H. Moreno, Superintendent; Kristen Martin, High School Principal; Brandon Layne, Former Athletic Director and Head Coach now living in Ferris, Texas; Richard Hinojosa, Athletic Director; Chris Taber, Athletic Director; Scott Grub, Head Coach;  and Keith Barnes, Coach.

The defendants were listed as Jane and John Doe, “Individually and as Next Friends of Child Doe, A Minor.” They were represented by their attorney John Kemmerer Ivey of the Ivey Law Firm.

Attorneys D. Craig Wood and Katie E. Payne (Walsh Gallegos Trevino Russo & Kyle)

Dr. Moreno and the school district were represented by attorneys Katie E. Payne and Donald Craig Wood from the Walsh Gallegos Trevino Russo & Kyle P.C.

Clay T. Grover of Rogers, Morris & Grover, LLP, a Houston law firm, was listed as representing Martin, Layne, Hinojosa, Taber, Grub and Barnes.

The Legal Timeline 

May 8, 2017: MOTION to Dismiss by Keith Barnes, Scott Grub, Richard Hinojosa, Brandon Layne, Kristen Martin, and Chris Taber by Clay Grover.

Attorney Clay T. Grover of Rogers, Morris & Grover

May 9, 2017: MOTION to Dismiss in Part for Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction and for Failure to State a Claim Upon Which Relief Can Be Granted by LaVernia ISD, Jose H. Moreno by Donald Wood.

May 23, 2017: MOTION for Extension of Time to File Response/Reply as to 20 MOTION to Dismiss in Part for Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction and for Failure to State a Claim Upon Which Relief Can Be Granted ,19 MOTION to Dismiss by Jane Doe, John Doe by John Ivey.

On Friday, May 25, 2017 at 5:30 p.m., Judge Orlando L. Garcia signed an ORDER GRANTING 21 Motion for Extension of Time to File Response.

Headlines from around the world rocked the small community, known for their friendliness and school spirit, located about 30 minutes southeast of San Antonio:

“Students sexually assaulted with bats, pipes and brooms in hazing scandal”New York Post

“Texas high school students arrested, face sexual assault charges for using steel pipes, broom sticks in hazing scandal”New York Daily News

“Texas Football Players Accused of Sodomizing Teammates With Coke Bottles and Bats”The Daily Beast

“NINE male high school athletes in Texas charged with ‘holding down at least 10 other boys and sexually assaulting”Daily Mail

“Nine Charged with Sex Assault in Texas High School Hazing Scandal”Breitbart News

“Due to the nature of the case and a current lawsuit against LVISD, our legal counsel must take precautionary measures that include the thorough review of all open record requests prior to releasing to the public in order to protect the personal information of our students and employees, which is within the legal rights of our school district, staff and students,” Moreno wrote on July 18, 2017.

“This is a common practice, which is available to all school districts. I also directed the attorneys that all information not protected by law be released as soon as possible.” —Dr. Jose Moreno

“On Monday, July 3, 2017 the Attorney General ruled that some of the information sought by Channel 4 (local television) is public information, with some exceptions,” Moreno continued. “The District is currently working on preparing the documents in accordance with the Attorney General’s ruling by redacting information that was determined to be excepted from disclosure. The District is prepared to fill the PIRs once this process is finalized.”

La Vernia, Texas Tower (Photo by Jack Dennis)

“Since the 10-day window to appeal the Attorney General’s ruling closed prior to the July 17, 2017 board meeting, Walsh Gallegos filed a standard appeal on the District’s behalf, until the Board was briefed on July 17,” the Superintendent explained. “The appeal required that the District file a lawsuit against the Attorney General. Prior to seeing the News 4 report on this matter, following the July 17, 2017 board meeting, and after the closed session consultation with the board, as the superintendent, I directed legal counsel not to proceed with the appeal and a Notice of Non-suit is being filed by our attorneys which will be served upon the Attorney General which will dismiss the case. This is a common practice, which is available to all school districts. I also directed the attorneys that all information not protected by law be released as soon as possible.”

The District sent the following message to the news station:

“La Vernia ISD is not proceeding with appealing the Texas Attorney General’s opinion and strongly believes in transparency but also has a responsibility to protect information that is not public. A standard appeal was filed on July 13, 2017 (to stay within the 10-day deadline to respond) before a scheduled School Board meeting on July 17, 2017. Following the meeting, the Superintendent directed legal counsel not to proceed with the appeal. The appeal to the Attorney General decision to release information is being withdrawn today, July 18, 2017. All the information being requested and deemed public is being released to the requestors as directed by the Attorney General.”

Football in La Vernia

Like many high schools, La Vernia’s community has invested much of their money and energy on sports. Parents and various leadership groups work tirelessly and dedicate substantial time to athletic activities–especially football—throughout the school year. Special events, homecoming week, pep rallies, and distant travel to out of town games all support the thought in some circles that maybe the school district is prioritizing sports much more than is necessary. Just a few years ago, the school board elected to install a special turf on the newly remodeled stadium at a cost of almost $500,000.

“I look forward to the challenges ahead and building a program based on Attitude, Effort, Discipline, and Selflessness.”–Coach Chris Taber

Coach Chris Taber arrived in La Vernia in Jan. 2017. He has enacted strict policies to protect students since the scandal was revealed. (Facebook: Pat Taber)

New head coach Chris Taber didn’t arrive to the school district until January 2017. At the time, he said he felt “very blessed. God puts us where he does for a reason.” Taber was optimistic and up for the challenge, knowing high school football is a high priority in the town of 1,250. He was dedicated and planned to cultivate a football team with days of long practice and drill sessions.

During his initial introduction to the district trustees, Taber thanked Moreno and the district knowing they had “set a challenge to achieve the Lone Star Cup within the next three years. This challenge will be met with enthusiasm and determination from day one…I look forward to the challenges ahead and building a program based on Attitude, Effort, Discipline, and Selflessness.”

The coach has a good history. He took Jacksonville ISD’s varsity football team to bi-district finals, and his Chapel Hill’s team to a 3A State football championship in 2011. The community was excited for their La Vernia Grizzlies.

Controversies

“One instance the parent was a teacher and her child was one of the football hazing victims,” a source told NEWS LEGIT. “She told the superintendent and he said he would look into it. Her son did not want to play football anymore and quit.  He started having issues with not wanting to go to school and even got involved in drugs.  She went back to superintendent and there had been no action taken against the alleged attackers of her kid and he again said he would look into it. Nothing got done. Her son tried to take his own life.  She finally went to the police herself. This is what finally got the ball rolling on starting the investigations that eventually led to the arrest of the 10 boys so far.”

Local police Sargent Donald Keil, the chief investigator on the case, along with Police Chief Bruce Ritchie and others were initially responsible for the investigation. Texas Rangers were brought in to help support the efforts and subsequently took over the leadership of the investigations.

“…because it is such a small, close-knit community, we don’t want there to be any perception of a conflict…because of that, our office, along with the Wilson County Attorney’s office has requested the assistance of the Attorney General as a special prosecutor in the case.”–DA Audrey Gossett Louis

The State Attorney General’s office is handling the litigation after the local District Attorney became concerned about local influence and conflicts of interest.

Audrey Gossett Louis, 81st Judicial District Attorney

“What we want to ensure is that the kids that had the courage to come forward, the families, the students of La Vernia ISD and the community and the accused and their families all understand that we want to preserve the integrity of the investigation,” 81st Judicial District Attorney Audrey Gossett Louis told the news media. “In light of that and as this investigation continues, it became clear to the County Attorney as well as myself were tied to suspects, victims and witnesses in the case. And because it is such a small, close-knit community, we don’t want there to be any perception of a conflict…because of that, our office, along with the Wilson County Attorney’s office has requested the assistance of the Attorney General as a special prosecutor in the case.”

To date, the Office of Attorney General Ken Paxton and the Texas Rangers will not comment on the ongoing investigation.

Early in the hazing investigation, local law enforcement and several school board members learned that three of the adult suspects along with a juvenile suspect held a 16-year-old male classmate down at an off campus home and sexually assaulted him with the threaded end of a CO2 air tank. The November 2016 crime was said to be part of the victim’s initiation into the varsity football team from the junior-varsity team.  “We’re lucky no one has died,” a credible source close to the investigations told NEW LEGIT. “Some of the acts committed on these boys were unbearably dangerous and brutal. This case goes beyond just the high school.”

“The parent of this child has gone through a living nightmare while her son struggled to deal with what happened,” a source, in education said. “As we understand it, she went to school authorities on several occasions to report it and seek help. She finally went to the police.”

Television News4 in San Antonio reported that, also in November 2016, a high school student was charged with child pornography after he allegedly filmed his sexual assaults with a female student in a high school hallway.

“Following the arrest on November 16th, an administrative expulsion hearing was held on December 1 and appropriate disciplinary action was taken,” Superintendent Moreno told News4. “The student is not enrolled at La Vernia High School.”

NEWS LEGIT confirmed from several sources that one of the original 10 suspects is the son of an educator in the school district. Some of the alleged crimes were committed in the boy’s athletic locker room. Information culled from the victims and their families broadened the investigation with allegations going back previous years.

“He told them he would investigate the allegations.  Again nothing was done.”–La Vernia parent

On May 1, 2017, Moreno announced the district would be launching “a new method to report bullying – harassment – acts of violence – and other unsafe behaviors called listen to my voice. We now have a La Vernia police officer assigned to the school full time.”

Moreno also stated that the school district had the okay from the Texas Rangers to conduct an internal investigation into the allegations to determine if coaches knew of the attacks.

La Vernia Police Department arrested students alleged to have committed sexual assault. (La Vernia.TXGov)

“We’ll start our investigation to find out if there’s any information that is still lacking as well as with any employees within our school district to ensure that there was proper notification if there was any idea that this was going on,” he said. To date, the District has not been transparent about their internal investigation.

Another source told of some parents who went to Moreno when their sons to “lodge a complaint against a certain basketball coach in regards to how this coach was mistreating and talking to his players. Talking down to them, using racial slurs etc.”

“I realize this issue isn’t as severe as the physical and sexual abuse, but none the less it was brought to him,” the source said. “He told them he would investigate the allegations.  Again nothing was done. No calls to the other parents of kids on the team that wasn’t a part of the ones complaining. No calls back to any of the parents that came forward to him with the complaints.  No disciplinary action to the coach. Basketball season ended. Nothing done.”

“But my point is, this is not a superintendent that has a priority of protecting the kids in his district,” the person continued. “I understand that he would not want to have these allegations made public because of the publicity involved and how it would affect the school district that he’s in charge of. If he had taken these parents complaints a couple of years ago and really, really looked into it and called these victims in and questioned them. And got the names of the boys that were doing it. And called them in and question them and talked to the coaches and questioned them at the very least it might have prevented the ongoing assaults from happening.”

 

All Seasons Ground Care (CLICK) in San Antonio & La Vernia

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