Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer insisted Tuesday a locker-room fistfight that ended with a now-former Mater Dei High School football player suffering head injuries was a case of “mutual combat” and not hazing, as alleged in a lawsuit filed by the player’s family against the school and the Diocese of Orange.
“Neither player involved in this fight was made to participate against their will,” Spitzer said in a statement about the Feb. 4 fight. “Other players in the locker room were seen milling around, playing on their phones, and largely uninterested in the punches being thrown by two of their teammates. The participants knew they were being filmed and they started throwing punches. Some punches landed; others did not, but it is unequivocally clear that both participants attempted to land as many punches as possible.”
Spitzer added, “There is not a single shred of evidence that this was anything other than a mutual combat situation with two willing participants who traded blow for blow, including repeated punches to each other’s heads. That does not make it acceptable. But it is not a crime.”
Spitzer blasted what he described as erroneous media coverage of the fight, saying it prompted him to issue a rare statement about a case involving juveniles.
Attorney Michael Reck, who represents the family of the injured student who filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court, said his firm’s case is entirely different than what Spitzer has to decide as a prosecutor. The civil suit is focused on claims of negligence and aims to induce reforms so similar types of conflict don’t continue at the school, Reck said.
“The district attorney has to make a decision whether they can prove criminal hazing against the other participant in the case,” Reck told City News Service. “That’s not our case… There is no dispute — even the district attorney saw this violent video and doesn’t dispute these events happened and happened in two locker rooms during a school day without an adult anywhere in sight or even in ear shot because of the racial slurs that were being yelled. Now, did something wrong happen in that locker room? For sure. Did those kids do something wrong? Absolutely. It shouldn’t happen, but there’s a culture created by these kids and that’s what we care about. It’s not our desire that other kids get prosecuted. That’s between them and the D.A. Our desire is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Attorney Brian Williams, who also represents the family in the civil suit, told City News Service the conflict was part of a hazing ritual at the school.
“I believe that I can prove each and every one of the allegations that are contained in the complaint and look forward to doing so,” Williams said. “What happened in that locker room is wrong and can’t happen again, and that’s why we filed the lawsuit.”
Reck said the two students were involved in a hazing ritual called “bodies.” The rules are to just punch the upper body and avoid head shots or below-the-belt blows, Reck said.
The lawsuit alleges that head football coach Bruce Rollinson told the injured boy’s father, “If I had a hundred dollars for every time these kids played Bodies or Slappies, I’d be a millionaire.” The suit also alleges that Rollinson said he was in a “bind” on disciplining the other boy “because the player that injured plaintiff is the son of one of Coach Rollinson’s assistants.”
The student suffered a traumatic brain injury, broken nose, “serious cuts above both eyes, and multiple contusions” in the battle, the lawsuit alleges.
According to Spitzer, neither of the boys involved in the fight said to stop, but they did when another player told them to halt.
Spitzer said the students “engaged in behavior that betrays the values of youth sports. … What happened in the Mater Dei locker room on Feb. 4, 2021, is nothing anyone should be proud of and it falls short of the kind of character any of us should wish for our children.”
The conflict “has been thoroughly investigated by law enforcement and reviewed blow by blow by the most experienced prosecutors in my office” to determine if charges could be filed, Spitzer said.
“At this point, there is no evidence of hazing or any other crime that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Spitzer said.
Spitzer condemned hazing in general and said he would continue to review the case.
A spokeswoman for the Diocese of Orange referred to a statement issued by Mater Dei President Father Walter E. Jenkins, who took his job on July 1.
Jenkins pledged to hire an “outside and independent firm to investigate student safety practices specifically within our athletic programs.” He said the school would “exceed” any industry standards for safety protocols.
Jenkins also said he would assemble a “task force of professionals within high school athletics to assist me in an overall review of how athletics is engaged at Mater Dei High School.”
Jenkins also said that Santa Ana police next week “will be on campus to do an extensive assessment of our vulnerabilities and make recommendations.” He will also begin holding “regular meetings with students to listen to their experiences, concerns, and questions about their lives at Mater Dei” and will also hold town hall-style meetings with parents in the spring semester.
Reck was dismissive of Jenkins’ pledges.
“Mater Dei and the Diocese of Orange have shown time and time again they can’t be trusted to self-police themselves,” Reck said. “There have been so many prolific sex abusers there, and if they can’t stop priests from molesting kids, how can we trust them to stop hazing.”
Reck said the hazing ritual was so common that it explains why other students in the locker room were more glued to their phones than they were the action.
The boy Reck represents felt compelled to participate in the ritual because the other boy is a “larger elite level player having smaller, newer players engage in bodies.”
The injured boy “is recovering,” and attending a new school, Reck said.
“He’s back in school doing his best to live life as a kid,” the attorney said. “His courage is (coming forward) is very encouraging. He’s doing this so this doesn’t happen to other kids. That’s part of the emotional healing for him.”
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