Records: What prompted Rockford football ‘misconduct’ investigation

The football field at Rockford High School.
The football field at Rockford High School.

ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — A member of Rockford High School’s varsity football team was disciplined for “gross misconduct” after he allegedly exposed himself during an initiation for new players at an off-campus gathering.

Seven players were suspended from the Oct. 14 game against East Kentwood for violating the school’s athletic code of conduct.

Two of the seven players, including the one cited for “gross misconduct” and another cited for “tobacco use,” were benched for two additional games.

The misconduct occurred when players gathered after Thursday night team dinners at an area known as the “Hill,” a secluded spot near the water tower just northeast of North Rockford Middle School.

Five of the seven disciplined players had “leadership” roles in the Hill gatherings.

Administrators interviewed each individual player on the evening of Oct. 17 and parents were invited to attend if they chose.

In a summary of the players’ interviews, the district described an activity in which one of the leaders at the gathering – a player referred to as the “story teller” – exposed himself.

“The majority of (the players) interviewed stated that when new players made varsity, they were instructed to stand in line and make contact with the exposed area of the story teller,” wrote administrators who compiled the results of the student interviews.

“Those placed first in line were told that this was a joke and to ‘play along’ with the instructions; the rest of the students would not know it was a joke until they saw the first student waved off. None of the students reported seeing contact of any kind taking place.”

The gatherings at the Hill came to the attention of school leaders after a former football player wrote a letter for a class assignment that outlined the inappropriate behavior, which allegedly took place over the past two varsity football seasons.

In an email summarizing the investigation, Rockford High School Athletic Director Tim Erickson wrote that the former player told administrators that “there are rituals held at the beginning of the year to ‘initiate’ the underclassmen,” and that the players “recited a pledge that they are sworn to secrecy regarding the Hill activities.”

The former player also reported that a third to half of the team attended the Hill gatherings, during which seniors would tell “jokes” and “mock” other players and coaches.

“On Friday, Oct. 14, (administrators) met with four players who verified that the activities at the Hill have continued this season and occur after every team dinner,” Erickson reported. “They each shared very similar versions of activities that occurred.”

In their Oct. 17 interviews, the majority of players reported that some of the jokes and stories told at Hill gatherings had racial overtones.

“Seventy-three percent of the students reported that inappropriate jokes and stories were told, some racially offensive and in the presence of students of various races and ethnicities,” records show.

The summary of student interviews also noted:

  • Most of the students said they’d witness the use of chewing tobacco at the gatherings, but none reported the use of drugs or alcohol.
  • The majority of students (77 percent) admitted they’d attended at least one Hill gathering, but said they did not feel coerced or forced to attend, and there were no ramifications for not attending.
  • None of the students reported that they told any Rockford Public Schools staff member or coach about events at the Hill. It was reported, however, that a former volunteer coach showed up at the gathering one time.

In response to Target 8’s request under the Freedom of Information Act, Rockford Public Schools released 41 pages of documents, emails and disciplinary letters.

In an Oct. 18 letter to football parents, RPS Superintendent Dr. Mike Shibler wrote,

“As you are aware, the RHS administrators have been investigating alleged inappropriate behaviors by some members of the varsity football team…… The inappropriate behavior involved the mistreatment of some members of the team during after school hours and off school grounds. Some of the inappropriate behavior targeted certain individuals. We don’t believe that those involved felt they were harming their teammates. However, after speaking with teammates, it was clear they were.”

“After interviewing the players and coaches, we concluded there has been inappropriate behavior taking place. Nearly all of the players interviewed confirm they witnessed or had heard of the alleged misconduct and have been extremely cooperative. A major part of the investigation focused on rituals that took place off school grounds. Those players that were responsible for the inappropriate behavior have been assigned the appropriate consequences, according to our athletic code of conduct. It is worth mentioning that the inappropriate activities described in the investigation were divisive to the team and were not a team building activity. If new information becomes available, we will continue to investigate this situation.”

District officials previously said they’d conferred with Rockford City Police about the allegations and were told it was not necessary to report the incidents to law enforcement.

TIMELINE OF EVENTS

Thursday, Oct. 13

  •  Rockford High School principal learned of letter, written by former player for class assignment, outlining inappropriate behavior by varsity players at off-campus gatherings.
  • Administrators interviewed student who authored the letter to gather details.
  • Assisstant superintendent of human resources informed Coach Ralph Munger of “suspicion that there were gatherings that occurred each Thursday at the Hill.”
  • At practice, administrators informed players that they’d become aware of gatherings at the Hill, and that “those gatherings were to end, including any gathering that may have been scheduled to occur that evening.”

Friday, Oct. 14

  • Administrators met with four players, all of whom “verified” that the Hill gatherings have continued this season. Each of the players identified the same senior players as those with leadership roles in the Hill activities.
  •  Administrators determined seven players would be suspended from the Oct. 14 game against East Kentwood. Two of the seven were benched for an additional two games.

Sunday, Oct. 16

  • In an email to administrators, Superintendent Mike Shibler wrote, “I want to thank you for the excellent work you did during the initial stages of the investigation.” Later in the email, Shibler wrote, “As your investigation continues Monday, I want to make it explicitly clear, the process is to be methodical and focused on finding the truth regarding inappropriate behavior by our students.”
  • In email to football parents, Athletic Director Tim Erickson informed them of the investigation into a “claim that some players were participating in inappropriate behavior.” Erickson told parents, “We have addressed players who are known to have been involved in conduct that goes against our athletic code of conduct.” A.D. Erickson also informed parents that administrators would meet with individuals players Monday after school until the entire team had been interviewed. Parents were invited to attend interviews with their child.

Monday, Oct. 17

  • After school, administrators interviewed each individual player, many of whom were accompanied by their parents. Athletes were all asked the same series of questions.

Tuesday, Oct. 18

  • Target 8 submitted request under Freedom of Information Act for records related to investigation.

Friday, Oct. 21

  • RPS responded to FOIA request within prescribed time frame, extending the response period by ten business days, as allowed by law. RPS wrote, “The extension was needed to provide time to search for, collect, appropriately examine, and/or seek legal counsel regarding the disclosure or non-disclosure of the requested information. The District hereby timely responds to your request by not later than Monday, November 7 (15 business days from receipt).”

Monday, Nov. 7

  • As required by law, RPS fulfilled FOIA request fifteen days after its receipt, releasing 41 pages of documents, emails and letters to Target 8.

**CORRECTION: An earlier story incorrectly stated that two of the seven players were suspended for one additional game. The two players were suspended for two additional games, not one. We apologize for this error, which has since been corrected.