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LA PUENTE, California – As a child, butterflies fluttered in Jesus Bonilla's stomach every time the soccer ball neared the net. Nothing felt quite as exhilarating as being the last person standing between the other team and a score.
He dreamed of becoming a professional athlete, but first, Bonilla looked forward to showing off his moves on the varsity team at La Puente High School in California.
“I wanted to become a pro soccer player, I really did,” said Bonilla, now 18. “I lost that hope already. It’s just soccer is not the same after what happened.”
During Bonilla's initiation for the team, he said the boys he so admired turned against him.
“They dropped me down to the floor right away. It was like seven [players] versus me,” said Bonilla, fighting back tears. “They just beat me.”
Bonilla said he was then sodomized. It was a team tradition he had heard about but never thought was real.
Hazing is becoming more frequent on high school sports teams, and experts say it has become increasingly violent and sexualized. Some see hazing as a form of "team bonding" or a "rite of passage," but in a court of law, it is considered assault. Whether schools should be held accountable is being put to the test in La Puente. At least two lawsuits have been filed against the school district, alleging sexual battery, sexual harassment, false imprisonment, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Bonilla’s attorney, Brian Claypool, is seeking compensatory damages on behalf of his clients for medical and psychiatric care, attorney’s fees, and other relief the court may deem proper.
Throughout his freshman year, Bonilla said he had heard the twisted details of a hazing tradition at the school called, “el palo,” meaning “the stick.” Players would share stories of sodomizing new varsity recruits - through their clothing -with a sharp stick or a piece of a flag pole. Bonilla said he thought it was a myth.
“Once you make it to varsity, then…they stick a pole up your butt,” he said. “You’re just like, ‘Okay, they’re just trying to get in my head. They’re just trying to discourage me before I could try out or just to scare me.’”
Bonilla said he didn’t believe it really happened. When it did happen to him a few years back, he felt like he was fighting for his life.
“They grabbed a pole. I grabbed onto the pole. They were kicking me. I was kicking them back. They were grabbing my legs, hitting me,” Bonilla recalled. “They weren’t the same people I met at the beginning. They just took the trust I had from them.”
When the school bell rang, Bonilla escaped. He kept the hazing ritual a secret from his family and skipped soccer practice for several days. “I was limping and I was crying,” he said.
But Bonilla wasn’t the only one. Another boy suffered injuries during a similar soccer hazing ritual, setting off a criminal investigation conducted by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 2012.
According to a police report, detectives discovered multiple students suffered attacks in which they were poked or sodomized with a sharp stick through their clothing.
One team captain told investigators that the initiation was “no big deal” and “all in fun.”
But a judge thought otherwise and sentenced three young men on felony assault and misdemeanor hazing charges. The oldest defendant, who had turned 18, was given three months in a juvenile camp. The two others got probation.
By that time, Bonilla was no longer at La Puente. He said he was forced to switch schools when news of the police investigation spread through campus. Other students bullied him, making obscene hand gestures and calling him names.
“It was hell for me. People made fun of me,” he said. “Students are cruel. They don’t care how you feel. They just want to get a laugh out of it.”
In March 2013, Bonilla and several others filed suit against the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District, as well as several other individuals, including the coach and several administrators. A second lawsuit, separate from Bonilla’s, was filed in August 2013.
Claypool told “America Tonight” that the coach and school administrators should have known about the tradition that seemed to have gone on for years.
“It’s a culture that’s created within a school,” Claypool said. “This isn’t an aberration. This isn’t something that just happened out of the blue, where an administrator could say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know about this.’”
Due to the pending lawsuit, the school superintendent, and the school board president refused to participate in an interview with “America Tonight.” Bahram Alavi, the former soccer coach, declined to speak on the record.
They grabbed a pole. I grabbed onto the pole. They were kicking me. I was kicking them back. They were grabbing my legs, hitting me. They weren’t the same people I met at the beginning. They just took the trust I had from them.
Through a public records request, we learned the school district has an anti-bullying policy and an anti-sexual harassment policy.
The school has also conducted training for staff on how to best supervise children.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of the students we serve in the Hacienda La Puente School District,” the school said in response to our records request and through its attorney, Dana McCune. “Bullying, harassment and hazing are matters that are consistently at the top of our priority list to identify and address. We have had and continue to have consistent standards and policies relating to harassment and the well-being of all students in our care. We have an absolute zero tolerance policy towards bullying in any form and from any person.”
The statement continued: “Our policies on this matter have been clearly outlined for many years in administrative regulations approved by the board. Of course, as cyber-bullying and other forms of harassment have become an issue, we have worked to incorporate them in our policies.”
“A lot of people are in favor of hazing,” said Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana and an author of several books on the phenomenon. “They think it’s all in good fun. They may have gone through a tradition themselves. They want their children to be accepted by their peers.”
Nuwer said hazing is anything that occurs when senior members of a group put newcomers through the paces – whether it be silly, dangerous, or demeaning – in order to gain full acceptance into a group.
In his decades of studying and documenting hazing incidents, Nuwer said they've become more brutal. Some cases have resulted in serious injury and death.
“Now, you can’t go a week during sports season without two to five hazings involving young people,” he said. “And a lot of those are sexual assaults involving sodomy, improper touching [and] putting buttocks in their faces.”
Forty-seven percent of students entering college have experienced hazing in high school or junior high, Nuwer said, citing statistics on a national study from StopHazing.org. He believes schools need strong anti-hazing policies and training in place to change their culture. When you have a culture of hazing, he said, sooner or later, a couple students are bound to take it too far.
In October, Sayreville High School in New Jersey canceled the football season after reports surfaced of senior players sodomizing younger players with their fingers. And last month, officials suspended a Georgia soccer team for several games when a photograph surfaced showing players watching another eating a pickle from another athlete’s nude behind. The school stopped short of calling the incident “hazing” and instead referred to it as a case of “inappropriate student behavior” because its investigation determined the individuals participated voluntarily.
'We have not kept them safe'
Tracy Stopford said she didn't learn about the hazing on the Milton High School football team until her son took his own life.
“We buried our son August 31, 2012, and we thought after that day there could be nothing in this world that could hurt us more,” Stopford said during a January 2015 court hearing for one of the accused attackers. “We were exceedingly wrong, We are still trying to cope with Jordan’s suicide, and now we have to live with the image of what happened to him on that football team.”
Jordan Preavy was 17 when he killed himself, one year after he was a victim of hazing at his Vermont high school. According to investigative documents, other players held him down and sodomized him with a broomstick.
Police did not start investigating allegations of hazing involving broomsticks and pool cues until 2014, two years after Preavy's death, when they received a report from the state’s Department for Children and Families. They discovered at least five players participated in hazing incidents.
During the January hearing, Preavy's former teammate Ryan Carlson pleaded guilty to simple assault, and apologized to Preavy’s family in open court.
“I should’ve intervened and stopped it,” he said. “I should’ve been a leader, and I was not. I truly am sorry.”
Stopford and her family are now pushing to pass a law nicknamed Jordan’s Bill that would require teachers, coaches, nurses and school administrators to immediately report all accusations of sexual abuse or hazing of a sexual nature to the state’s child welfare agency or police.
“We need to have a huge change in attitudes in this country toward initiatives with the idea of safeguarding our young people,” said Nuwer. “Supposedly, our first responsibility of a school is to educate students, but right behind it is to keep them safe. In many instances, we have not kept them safe and we still aren’t keeping them safe."
But that isn't always simple. Jesus Bonilla believes the boys who abused him were once victims themselves. The cycle of abuse will not be broken, he said, until players and their coaches confront the problem rather than hide from it.
Even though he said he was bullied for speaking out about the assault, he has a message for other kids who have experienced something similar.
“I would want them to feel comfortable enough to tell either their parents or counselor at school or just anywhere,” he said. “I know I’m going to get made fun of again. I know this is going to happen to me again, but it’s just…I want it not to happen to anybody else.”