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2 Warsaw wrestlers charged with hazing

As part of his initiation onto the powerhouse varsity wrestling team at Warsaw High School, a 15-year-old said older teammates shoved him into a locker, forced him to eat food from the floor and called him names.

He complained to the wrestling coach, and the harassment eased last year, but it started up again this fall after the teen lost a match some teammates thought he should have won.

On Dec. 9, desperate to bring an end to the abuse, the teen agreed to let another bullying victim on the team punch him in the face -- and ended up with a broken jaw.

Now, two older wrestlers accused of orchestrating the incident are facing charges of criminal hazing and the school's respected wrestling coach is serving a 30-day suspension, authorities announced Thursday after a lengthy probe by Warsaw police, the Wyoming County District Attorney's Office and the school district.

"This was a very complicated and drawn-out investigation," Shawn Heubusch, Warsaw's assistant police chief, said in an interview, citing the large number of young people who needed to be questioned.

Authorities said the investigation found there was a "tradition" of hazing among certain wrestlers that a lack of adult supervision allowed to flourish.

The school district found wrestling coach Robert Hirsch doesn't bear responsibility for what happened but said in a statement that Hirsch is suspended for 30 days without pay from his coaching position because some of his actions were "inappropriate."

"Going forward the entire community -- including staff, teachers, parents, and other community leaders -- needs to use this incident as a teaching moment as to why and how this student was injured and what could have been done to prevent it," District Attorney Donald G. O'Geen said in a lengthy statement on the probe results.

Warsaw police, school district officials and the DA's Office had been close-lipped during the 12-day investigation before revealing their findings in two statements Thursday afternoon.

The 14-year-old teammate who threw the punch that broke the 15-year-old's jaw, and the 15-year-old, who also punched the younger teen, were not charged, but authorities said the two could face proceedings in Family Court. That is up to the assistant county attorney.

>Evidence tampering

Those boys, and the 17- and 16-year-olds accused of hazing, were not named by authorities.

The 17-year-old also is charged with tampering with physical evidence because police say he tried to destroy cellphone video footage taken of the Dec. 9 incident. He and the 16-year-old must appear in Warsaw Town Court on Jan. 9.

Warsaw Superintendent Valerie Burke said in a statement that "appropriate disciplinary steps were taken" against students who violated the district's code of conduct.

The official account of what led up to the incident, what took place in the wrestling team room and what happened afterward are based on interviews with 27 people and video footage recorded on wrestlers' cellphones and security cameras at the high school.

Hazing of younger members of the team started as far back as two or three years ago, investigators learned. One video found on the cellphone of the 16-year-old showed a wrestler, who has graduated, hitting a teammate so hard he was knocked out.

In another video on the same teen's phone, an unknown girl is shown being wrapped in tape by several students as she says, "Stop," though investigators couldn't determine when and where the video was recorded.

Much of the wrestler-on-wrestler harassment took place in the locker room where wrestlers got ready for practices at the high school, a time when the coach and assistant coach left the boys alone. The DA's report said some members of the team refused to move their lockers into the room because of what happened there.

The DA's report states two other students complained to Hirsch of being hazed on three other occasions, and those students vowed to quit the team if the harassment didn't stop.

Daniel J. Chiacchia, an attorney representing the student with the broken jaw and his family, said hazing complaints were largely dismissed because of the wrestling team's high profile.

>'Warsaw wrestling family'

The program has been the best in Section V for much of the last decade, and won a state championship in 2007. "They just get ignored, because this 'Warsaw wrestling family' has been like the face of Warsaw High School. It's been going on for years," Chiacchia said.

The 15-year-old said his initiation-related hazing stopped after he complained to Hirsch at the end of last season.

However, recently -- the DA's report doesn't say exactly when -- the 15-year-old lost a match that older boys on the team thought he should have won.

They began calling him names that disparaged his masculinity, and the harassment began anew, Chiacchia said.

Finally, on the afternoon of Dec. 9, as six members of the team prepared for another practice, the 15-year-old asked what he could do to make the harassment end.

He was told that he and one of his friends, who was 14 at the time and also subjected to bullying, could punch each other once in the face. The two boys wrestle in the lighter weight classes on the team.

>Exchange of punches

The 15-year-old punched the 14-year-old in the face, and the 14-year-old then punched the 15-year-old in the face. But the older boys weren't satisfied with the 14-year-old's punch and they began punching the 15-year-old in his body.

They soon stopped, however, and urged the 14-year-old to throw one more punch, and this second punch broke the boy's jaw, investigators determined.

The 14-year-old helped his injured friend, who was bleeding severely, while the 16- and 17-year-old were seen on the hallway security cameras laughing, according to the DA's report.

The three punches were recorded on a cellphone, but authorities say the 17-year-old erased footage of the last two punches to make it seem as if the 15-year-old was the aggressor.

The two other students in the locker room that afternoon are not accused of participating in the hazing, though it appears they did not attempt to stop what was happening.

The wrestling team did not take part in its scheduled match last weekend, though Burke told The Buffalo News the team will be allowed to wrestle at a meet tonight at Salamanca.

Burke said in her statement that the hazing was determined to be an "isolated" incident, but the district takes the situation seriously and plans to offer anti-bullying training for staff and students.

O'Geen said in his statement that authorities, including in the school district, never considered shutting down the wrestling team because that would hurt the many members who had nothing to do with the hazing. However, he added that it's important for victims of this or any hazing to know that adults are concerned about such harassment.

As for the 15-year-old, his jaw remains wired shut and he had to give written answers to investigators' questions, said Heubusch, who led the Warsaw police investigation with Officer Peter Hoffmeister. The teen has not yet returned to school.

"He's doing terrible. It's a miserable time for him," said Chiacchia, who described his client as "really a dedicated wrestler."

email: swatson@buffnews.com