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'It's time for people to step up': Richland 44 School District looks to move forward from assault, hazing allegations

COLFAX, N.D. - Assistant football coaches at Richland 44 School District are calling for a "cultural overhaul" in the wake of allegations and investigations alleging years of sexual assault and hazing among teenage boys at the school."What happen...

Football coaches Brandon Nelson, from left, Zach Riopelle and Nathan Myers present a plan to improve Richland High School’s social media presence during a meeting of the Richland #44 School Board on Tuesday, April 17, 2018, in Colfax, N.D. It was the first meeting since the release on an independent review detailing assault, sodomy and hazing at the high school. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Football coaches Brandon Nelson, from left, Zach Riopelle and Nathan Myers present a plan to improve Richland High School’s social media presence during a meeting of the Richland #44 School Board on Tuesday, April 17, 2018, in Colfax, N.D. It was the first meeting since the release of an independent review detailing assault and hazing by some boys at the high school. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

COLFAX, N.D. - Assistant football coaches at Richland 44 School District are calling for a "cultural overhaul" in the wake of allegations and investigations alleging years of sexual assault and hazing among teenage boys at the school.

"What happens when you search Richland online? You see nothing but ugly news articles," said coach Zach Riopelle on Tuesday, April 17. "We need to show everyone that isn't us. Show them that whoever they think we are, we aren't."

Riopelle was flanked by coaches Brandon Nelson and Nathan Myers when they requested to address the board at the meeting Tuesday in front of a crowd of nearly 70 community members.

"We used to be a community united, and since Jan. 17 we have been a community divided," Riopelle said, adding that one problem is no one stepping up to move the district forward.

The district's superintendent, Tim Godfrey, has been on paid administrative leave since March 1 without explanation after parents brought up complaints of sexual assault and the Richland County Sheriff's Office later launched an investigation.

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Five male students were charged with hazing, sexual assault, felonious restraint and terrorizing. The investigation was regarding "alleged offenses that occured in the boys' locker room," and the boys were referred to juvenile court.

Richland County State's Attorney Megan Kummer said this week that the cases have been "resolved." In order to protect the identities of minors, no further information was shared.

The district's finance committee is coming up with a recommendation for a special meeting Wednesday, April 25, to decide whether the district should bring in an experienced, recently retired superintendent to lead Richland for the remainder of the school year.

High School Principal Bruce Anderson has served as interim superintendent but recently announced his retirement along with Godfrey's resignation, both effective June 30. Also departing the district in recent weeks is Athletic Director John Freeman, who was head football coach. Job postings for superintendent close May 1 and the positions of principal and athletic director are open until filled.

School board President Lisa Amundson said one former superintendent has expressed interest in helping the district and seven people have applied for Anderson's position. Amundson confirmed Tuesday that Godfrey remains on paid leave.

The board approved expenses for the month, which includes $44,112 to Langevin Lentz LLC, a Minneapolis-based law firm hired to conduct a review of the district's policies and procedures related to the investigation. An additional $34,500 in legal fees was paid to Vogel Law Firm.

Some details of the alleged hazing and sexual assault were provided in a report by investigators at Langevin Lentz. The report released by the district April 6 describes a series of incidents dating back to at least 2015. Some parents interviewed by the firm said their children described incidents to them as the "rape game" involving students trying to stick fingers up other's "butts." Other descriptions involved restraint and sodomy occurring during musical rehearsals, field trips and physical education classes.

Langevin Lentz determined that the district's policies of bullying and hazing are not well executed and there is inadequate training for staff.

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Tuesday was the first school board meeting since the independent report became public. With that, board member Josh Mjoness suggested the board form a task force to analyze concerns addressed in the report, such as training and social media use, as well as community concerns.

"It's time for people to step up," Mjoness said, adding that the task force would be composed of staff, students and community members.

The goal is to improve student climate and ensure a safe environment now and in the future, Mjoness said. Task force recommendations will be presented to the board sometime in July.

In closing Tuesday's meeting, board member Nathan Berseth directed a statement to the media.

"We as a district have made mistakes. We made difficult decisions. Having said that, we are not only turning the page, but moving on to the next chapter," Berseth said. "While I understand the media's thirst, I hope they will respect the community and district's desire to heal."

Looking ahead, a date will be set within the next few weeks to involve the community and staff in the process of searching for a new superintendent.

An audience of more than 60 people attended a meeting of the Richland #44 School Board on Tuesday, April 17, 2018, in Colfax, N.D. It was the first meeting since the release on an independent review detailing assault and hazing of some boys at the high school. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
An audience of more than 60 people attended a meeting of the Richland #44 School Board on Tuesday, April 17, 2018, in Colfax, N.D. It was the first meeting since the release on an independent review detailing assault and hazing of some boys at the high school. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Kim Hyatt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead covering community issues and other topics. She previously worked for the Owatonna People's Press where she received the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award in 2016. Later that year, she joined The Forum as a night reporter and is now part of the investigative team. She's a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth.
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