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Community responds in prayer

 
Community responds in prayer
Members of St. Ann Catholic Church lead prayers March 24 for healing in the La Vernia community, during a Stations of the Cross service in the church. A community healing and hope service was planned for March 28 in the city park.

It’s been a rocky week in La Vernia, following the arrests of nine student-athletes from La Vernia High School on multiple charges of sexual assault.

An investigation by the La Vernia Police Department, sparked by an outcry several weeks ago, is ongoing, and more arrests are imminent, according to Sgt. Donald “D.J.” Keil and Chief Bruce Ritchey.

The community is in shock.

“As bad as this is,” said one community member, once active as a church youth leader at St. Ann Catholic Church some years ago, “it’s good that this is coming out into the light. This is an opportunity to shine the light on this, and bring healing to the victims, and the community.” She asked to remain anonymous, as community members’ emotions are very raw as events continue to unfold.

Healing is a common thread in the responses from law enforcement, children’s advocacy personnel, community members, and school officials.

“We’re going to get through this,” La Vernia Independent School Superintendent Josť Moreno told the La Vernia News March 28. “ ... We’re heartbroken by this incident, but we know we will move forward together when the investigation is completed.”

The outcry to police led to forensic interviews with the Children’s Alliance of South Texas, which indicated a crime had been committed.

Arrests began March 23, and are continuing. All so far are members of the La Vernia High School boys athletic program -- football, baseball, basketball, soccer, track and field -- “all the sports,” Keil said.

He said the department had identified 25 victims as of March 27, and a list of suspects that “continues to grow” in the investigation that now stretches back 3-1/2 years. Arrests March 27 included Dustin Norman and Robert Olivarez, both charged as adults, according to the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office.

Investigations into “extreme hazing” have turned into charges of sexual assault of a child -- a second-degree felony -- with victims assaulted with objects, such as baseball bats, pipes, and other items.

Victims have been traumatized, Keil said.

“Some of these boys are too male, too macho to admit what’s happened,” Chief Ritchey said. But he urges victims to come forward, not only to assist in the investigation, but to get help.

“They’re going to carry this for the rest of their lives,” he said. “They need to get it off their chests.”

Getting help from professionals will start the healing process for them, he said, adding, “Please, please, please, get help!”

Victims are being assisted by staff of the Children’s Alliance of South Texas, which offers therapy and support for victims and their families, not only as they go through the judicial process, but on a personal level.

“Our team is highly trained to handle this,” said Executive Director Mikey Betancourt. “When something like this happens, it affects everyone.”

They offer counseling for the victims and their families, and have a team of therapists.

Seeking help bears a stigma, he said, but this shouldn’t keep anyone from seeking assistance.

“Counseling is an important thing to help healing from crisis situations,” he said.

Healing and hope inspired the La Vernia Ministerial Alliance to invite the community to a service of hope and healing in the La Vernia City Park March 28, for prayers and words of comfort and encouragement.

Healing also will come from addressing the situation, Chief Ritchey said.

“This has impacted trust in the community,” he said. “We need to get with the kids and let them realize how serious this is,” he said. “We think kids got caught up in the moment and didn’t realize the seriousness of this matter.”

The perpetrators and their victims “are going to need help to make themselves better,” the police chief said. “We have the information to direct them to help.”

He and Keil, along with Betancourt, advise that this is an important time, an opportunity to discuss safety and awareness among families.

“Educate your kids,” Ritchey said. “Talk about what hazing is, and its seriousness.”

“... talk with kids about taking care of themselves and their bodies,” Betancourt advised. “How to go to someone for help and who to go to.”

“Parents, talk to your kids,” Keil urged. “Open the conversation.”

The school district was offering support for students, who are in the midst of state testing this week.

“Students have been given email and phone numbers as an active hotline to contact our counselors,” Dr. Moreno said.

“This is a wonderful community with great kids and families,” he continued. “... We care about our community and our students and we’re going to do everything possible to ensure their safety and respect their privacy.”

Though there has been criticism, “... we’re going to do everything possible to rebuild that confidence.”

The district, he said, is reviewing everything in its programs and all aspects of student safety. New Boys Athletic Director Coach Chris Taber is committed to the district, and has put structures in place that will work, based on his experience, the superintendent said.

“He has high standards and accountability for the athletic program,” Moreno said.

Responding to questions about the district’s actions in the wake of the revelations, he said in a statement, “... we have been requested by law-enforcement officials to not investigate the allegations until after they have completed theirs. ... the District is complying with that request ... .”

The La Vernia Police Department continues its investigation, aided by the Texas Rangers.

Keil urges victims and others to come forward.

Anybody who has information can contact us,” he said. “If you witnessed a conversation, if you heard anything, we’re here to investigate it all.

“Please contact us, and we can provide resources to help the healing process.”

Contact Keil, the lead investigator, at:

•830-779-4541, option 1 for police

•dkeillvpd@lavernia-tx.gov.

Help for victims

The Children’s Alliance of South Texas has been aiding in the investigation, and offers counseling and support for victims and their families. Staff also can direct community members seeking help.

Contact: 1108 Railroad St., Floresville; 830-393-6290 or 830-393-2160; http://www.castcac.org; or email mbetancourt@castcac.org

The Rape Crisis Center in San Antonio also offers help for victims of assault and abuse: 4606 Centerview, Ste. 200, San Antonio; 24-hour hotline, 210-349-7273; or office, 210-521-7273.

Signs of possible abuse

Community members may be concerned their child may have been a victim. Some signs to watch for, particularly in adolescent victims, according to stopitnow.org:

•Changes in behavior

•Nightmares or other sleep problems

•Depression, anxiety

•Suicide attempts

•Self-injury, such as cutting or burning

•Running away from home

•Alcohol or drug abuse

•Inadequate personal hygiene.

 
 
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