Authorities in North Dakota are investigating allegations of student bullying and hazing at a school south of Fargo, including possible sexual misconduct.
The alleged misbehavior happened in the male locker room at the grade 7-12 school in Colfax and may have involved sexual harassment, Superintendent Tim Godfrey said Wednesday. He declined to provide further details, including about the nature of the alleged misconduct, whether there was only one incident and whether it occurred during or after school hours.
Mayor Scott Gauslow said talk around town that the alleged misbehavior might involve younger students being sexually violated in a darkened male locker room by older students is "a very sensitive issue," and he declined further comment other than to call the situation "a very bad deal" for the community of 150 people.
Senior Gavin Hill-Olson, 18, said he witnessed an incident and put a stop to it, but he declined to provide details of what he described as "hazing." It wasn't clear when Hill-Olson saw the behavior.
"I know it's inappropriate and it's not good for people to do that, especially kids our age," he said. "I think it's pretty pathetic, really."
Godfrey said some students have been "removed" from school. He declined to say whether that meant they were suspended or simply told to stay home, but said any decision on their status won't happen until the investigation concludes. He also declined to say how many students were removed and what grades they are in, citing the ongoing investigation. About 160 students attend the school, which is about 30 miles from Fargo.
"We made a decision to remove some students from the school for their safety and (that of) others," Godfrey said.
A parent first notified the school of student misconduct on Jan. 17, and school officials called all male athletes to a meeting the next day about the inappropriateness of what they then believed was "horseplay," the superintendent said.
"At that time, all we knew was that it was a game students were playing," he said.
Last Friday, other parents came forward with more information, leading school officials to call law enforcement because it became clear the situation "was much more involved," Godfrey said.
Neither Richland County Sheriff Larry Leshovsky nor sheriff's investigator Josh Beto immediately replied to phone messages left Wednesday seeking comment. The seven members of the school board either declined to comment or didn't immediately reply to requests for comment.
Most people around town on Wednesday declined to talk about the situation. Jenny Schmitt, parent of a high school student, said some people "have made conclusions, and we can't do that yet."
Gauslow said the situation has "driven a little wedge" into what had been a tightknit community.
"The town is small but we're pretty progressive, and it could be difficult to get people to come and live in a wasp's nest," he said. "We still have a good story to tell, but this has really muddied the waters."