LA VERNIA, Texas –– The small town of La Vernia has a population of 1,200 people, a police force of six full-time officers and, like most of Texas, a religious-like investment in its high school football team.
Which is why the expanding investigation into disturbing allegations of sexually violent hazing within the school's male athletic teams, including football, baseball and basketball, has rattled the tightknit community located 30 miles east of San Antonio.
Since the end of March, 13 students - seven juveniles and six adults - have been arrested in connection with the hazing scandal, a lawsuit has been filed against La Vernia High School and at least 10 victims have come forward with stories of athletic team "initiations" that included sodomy and sexual abuse with Coke and Gatorade bottles, flashlights and the threaded end of a carbon dioxide tank.
La Vernia police chief Bruce Ritchey has called the scandal a "black eye" on the community. The Texas Rangers took over the investigation earlier this month to ensure impartiality since many of the victims, perpetrators and members of law enforcement know each other, reported the San Antonio Express-News.
The State Attorney General's office will prosecute the cases.
"Hazing is done in high schools and colleges all over the country," Ritchey told the Express-News. "But not to this point."
And the public controversy - and division - surrounding the investigation only escalated this week when three 18-year-old senior basketball players were arrested and charged with second-degree felony sexual assault for allegedly sodomizing a 15-year-old with a flashlight at a home in February near La Vernia, reported local news outlets.
The arrests, which raised the total to 13, came just one day after the parents of one alleged victim filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the La Vernia Independent School District and officials for enabling a "persistent 'rape culture'" within the football program.
"The teams' coaches have sanctioned these rituals, while other school officials, including La Vernia ISD and the School's principal, athletic director, and coaches, turned a blind eye toward the abuse, even after the abuse was reported to them," the lawsuit alleges. "Indeed, the Plaintiffs are but a fraction of the students who have been physically and sexually assaulted pursuant to these sadistic hazing rituals which include rape, sodomy, unlawful sexual penetration and sexual abuse."
The 15-year-old, identified only as Child Doe, was a freshman junior varsity football player in the fall of 2015 when, right before the playoffs, he was promoted to the varsity squad, according to the lawsuit.
Upperclassmen teammates spoke of an "initiation," and one senior football player told him to "get ready."
The first hazing incident, the suit alleges, occurred in the locker room before the team's first playoff game in a border city three and a half hours south of La Vernia.
In the locker room, according to the lawsuit, Child Doe was "attacked" by three upperclassmen, shoved face down on the floor and pinned in place. Child Doe struggled to get away, but the players allegedly sexually assaulted the young player with a Gatorade G2 bottle.
The following week, school was abuzz with news of the incident and Child Doe claims that other players and classmates asked him what happened. In class, a teacher who had overheard the student talking about the assault said "it was wrong" and told the kids to "cut it out," the lawsuit says.
The teacher said she sent an email to the then-athletic director, Brandon Layne, and that the incident would "be taken care of." She repeated the same words to Child Doe, the lawsuit claims, then said she was sorry and that he "won't have to worry about it."
That same day at football practice, the junior varsity team was dismissed from the locker room so Layne could speak with the varsity players. He was aware of the "initiations," Layne said, according to the suit, and they needed to stop.
"You won't be able to get a job, no girl will want to date you and you could go to prison," Layne said, according to the suit. "Cut it out."
But the assault was not reported to authorities, the lawsuit claims, and instead, the school's solution was to require that head football coach at the time, Keith Barnes, be present in the locker room at all times before practice.
Two weeks later, though, the 15-year-old was allegedly attacked again in the locker room, this time by two varsity players who shoved him to the ground then punched and fondled him. Two days later came another alleged attack, before practice, from three varsity players who pushed him to the ground but nothing else, the lawsuit claims.
After the 2015-16 season ended, the school hired a new athletic director and head football coach.
But the hazing continued into the player's sophomore year when he was once again allegedly attacked in the locker room during two-a-day varsity practices. He had just finished showering and was at his locker, the lawsuit claims, when two senior players held him down and a third player sexually assaulted him with a cardboard tube from a coat hanger.
They laughed, the lawsuit alleges, and told Child Doe "new year, new initiation."
Two other hazing incidents occurred during the 2016-17 season; one was in the locker room and the second in the weight room, when a senior flipped Child Doe over and threatened to sexually assault Child Doe with a metal pipe he was holding.
The senior allegedly dropped the pipe when a coach walked in.
The lawsuit lists the school district, superintendent, building principal, athletic directors and football coaches as defendants. The parents, listed only as John and Jane Doe, and a 15-year-old football player, identified as Child Doe, seek damages for "medical expenses" and "physical pain and mental anguish."
In a statement to the Express-News, La Vernia ISD Superintendent Jose Moreno said the district learned of the lawsuit through the news and "will continue working closely with the authorities as they conduct a full and thorough investigation."
Moreno said new school protocols are being adopted so students can more easily report abuse, according to the Associated Press.
J.K. Ivey, the attorney who brought the lawsuit, said in a news release that the legal action was the "first step in an effort to peel back the covers on a long and sordid history of neglect, misconduct and abuse" at La Vernia that may have existed for more than a decade and affected dozens of children.