Editor’s Note: The Madison County Record reached out to Arkansas medical providers for guidance in speaking to victims and suspects involved in events in a Title IX investigation conducted by the Huntsville School District. 

The Title IX investigation stemmed from allegations that some junior high boys’ basketball players would “baptize” other players. According to multiple reports, both written and verbal, voluntarily provided to The Record by multiple people, the act of “baptizing” occurred when several players restrained other teammates, mostly younger players, while other players undressed and then placed certain exposed private body parts in or on the restrained players’ faces. 

Two junior high school players admitted to both holding down teammates and placing certain exposed private body parts in or on the faces of players who were restrained and also placed blame on a player now on the senior-high team for having conducted the same act to them a year prior.

According to the parent of one of the students, who was a victim, the incidents happened multiple times to several players. Some players were “baptized” more than 10 times. One student was held down by three students, while two others “baptized” him.  

The Record spoke to Dr. Karen Farst, a pediatrician specializing in medical aspects of child abuse and Karen Worley, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in mental health evaluation of child victims as well as youth who have sexually offended on other youth.

Drs. Farst and Worley spoke to The Record in general terms and not about the specific incidents in the Title IX investigation. 

Below is an edited and condensed version of an interview conducted by The Record

Q: What is the difference between “locker-room antics” and sexual assault?

Dr. Farst: 

If there’s an event that uses force and coercion so there’s not consent involved then that’s not “locker-room antics.” That’s assault. 

But any situation where there’s force, coercion, intimidation, that’s not locker-room antics. And it is assault. 

Q: How does that differ from sexual harassment? 

Dr. Farst:

From a pediatrician’s standpoint, I would not consider contact – physical contact – especially contact with sexual organs, as harassment. So if there’s physical contact, force and intimidation, then from a medical or pediatric standpoint, that would be assault. 

Q: How do parents begin a conversation about the incidents with their children who were players on the team? 

Dr. Farst:

The parent doesn’t have to get all of the details. To me, it is just important for the parents to acknowledge that something happened to you that was wrong. It opens up the opportunity to talk about the issue of consent. 

Parents can open up a dialogue to say, “This is something that happened against your consent and this was wrong. It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, but you need to know that this truly was something that wasn’t your fault.” 

We are moving more in our culture to seeing these kinds of incidents aren’t just hazing. I think it’s important for the parents to be honest with the kids about saying something that somebody doesn’t consent to is not right and you need to be able to speak up and tell somebody that something happened. 

Dr. Worley

What I would add to that is when something that intrusive occurs, it can result in significant trauma and a lot of disturbance to the young person that it happened to. And, parents may need some help sorting that out. And, they may need to talk to a therapist or have their child talk to a therapist. 

Any type of intrusive behavior like this can result in trauma-related symptoms. People don’t necessarily recognize those symptoms as related to the bad thing that happened. 

Symptoms that parents should look for include: problems sleeping, irritability, change in appetite and cheerfulness, and increased anxiety. Another side of trauma is avoiding anything to do with things that would remind somebody of trauma. Avoiding certain situations, certain people, certain topics, certain television shows. Usually that’s a big change in behavior. 

Q. Because some students involved in “baptizing” weren’t punished by the school, The Record asked, generally, going forward, how do you address the victim’s possible fear of seeing someone who has hurt them? 

Dr. Worley

We recommend developing a safety plan that specifies if and when there should be any contact between those kids and what circumstances. They certainly shouldn’t be in the restroom together. There would be an adult supervising at all times. There would need to be a safe person the kids could go to and talk to when it was disturbing them. … I’m recommending a safety plan where there’s always an adult in eyesight in charge. If that weren’t happening then they shouldn’t go in the locker room

Q: How do you ease the fear victims have when seeing the people who harmed them?

Dr. Worley 

I wouldn’t tell anyone not to be fearful. That’s a signal that something’s not right. I would give kids guidelines on how to stay safe and to follow those, and give them other support to deal with their fears. 

For the kids who did it: they need to learn the impact of what they’ve done and not do it again. 

Dr. Farst:

The parents should encourage kids to have safety plans, and, depending on the kids, some of these kids will have some very significant anxiety. Having somebody professionally that you’re visiting with, from the trauma symptoms standpoint to learn coping mechanisms for anxiety, could also be very helpful.

Q: How would a student go about getting help, where do you go for help?

Drs. Farst and Worley

Consider Children’s Advocacy Centers, which have 17 offices in the state. They’re a place for kids to get forensic interviews for investigations, for suspected child abuse. 

But the other thing they are so wonderful for is that they can help with references for treatment related and trauma-related symptoms for kids who have experienced something like this. 

Q: How do parents help victims and those suspects in the investigation? 

Dr. Worley

In therapy, what we do is we let kids know that this has happened. It’s been reported and they may have been involved either as having it happen to them or they might have done it. If that’s so, they probably have a lot of feelings about it. As a parent and a therapist, I would want them to talk to me about it. 

If I were a parent, I’d say “And I’ll love you no matter what. Whatever the problem is. I’m going to be there and support you. We’re going to get through this, and we’re going to get through this together. This has gone on for a while and you’ve probably not known how to deal with it, so let’s figure this out.” Just open the door with that. 

Q: How is the best way to go about listening to a victims’ dialogue about the events?

Dr. Worley

Just listen, don’t talk. Let them know that you are there to listen and not judge. Sometimes a parent’s most immediate response is, ‘Why didn’t you tell me? That’s horrible. I’m going to kill him.” If you’re going to kill somebody, the kids are not going to open up to you. So really listen and listen to the kids perspective and don’t push your feelings on them. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard.

Let them know that you’re proud of them and that you’re glad that they’ve told you even though it’s really hard to hear. 

Dr. Farst

When a child decides to tell you something that might upset you, they’ll oftentimes give a little and see how you’re going to react, and so it is important to calm your inner self and just say, “Thank you for talking to me. I know this is hard to talk about but I am your parent, who wants to walk with you through anything you’re going through, so let’s keeping talking.” 

Q: What are some longterm effects of sexual assault and how do you recognize those longterm effects?

Dr. Worley

First thing is to do the immediate intervention and give kids some coping skills for dealing with that. 

There are tons of longterm effects from sexual abuse, such as sexual issues, depression, anxiety, lots of mental health issues can be the longterm outcome of this. So it’s really important to address it as soon as it becomes apparent. 

Q: In general terms, how would a community deal with incidents such as this?

Dr. Farst:

It’s a terrible, terrible thing that your community is going through but it’s also an unfortunately good opportunity to have that talk about consent. As this adolescent group is getting ready to launch into adulthood, go to college and different places, this is what people struggle with. Consent needs to be very clear. 

This is an opportunity for families to really talk about that if there’s not consent then you don’t do something. That’s where we can hopefully protect each other in social situations. So if kids are out at parties or something like that, they need to be able to kind of rally behind each other and not feel kind of peer pressured into things where there’s not very clear consent. 

Consent is yes or no. That’s the same thing that goes on with date rape. You came to the party with me so that’s consent – no, I wanted to go to a party with you. Consent is more cut and dry than people try to make it. 

Q: Does discussing sexual assault after the fact bring trauma again to people involved?

Dr. Worley

If you don’t talk about it, it continues. It’s really important to get these kids and probably the faculty and staff at the school, the tools to address it. 

Dr. Farst: 

The trauma has already occurred. But we can try to stop it from continuing to happen. We can’t do that by pretending that it didn’t happen. We have to try to deal with the trauma that has occurred. 

We can’t go back and undue the abuse that has occurred, but we can try to keep it from happening again. We can try to deal with the fallout as far as the trauma effects from an event like this.

Dr. Worley

It’s important to recognize that the trauma is not just to the victims. It’s to everyone who loves those victims, which is basically the whole community, so everyone is suffering and everyone is reacting. When things like this happen, it triggers others’ abuse history. 

Q: At what age do you begin to have conversations about sexual assault?

Dr. Worley

The conversation begins early. You teach them the right names for body parts and how to care for their body parts. You teach them how to feel safe and come to you when there are problems. This starts as infants and toddlers and grows. It shouldn’t just be a talk when you go through puberty. It needs to be a process from the very, very beginning. 

Dr. Farst 

The beginning is talking about healthy and safe relationships where people don’t make you do things that you’ve said, “No,” and adults don’t ask you to keep secrets. You talk about your body and the parts of your body that your bathing suit covers and other people aren’t supposed to touch that. As kids get into puberty, at that time you can talk a little bit more about intimate relationships. 

Dr. Worley

You need the tools to start those conversations that you started earlier. And if you didn’t start earlier you need to start in the late elementary years or a little sooner about consent. It’s not OK for people to do things that make you uncomfortable. It’s not okay for you to do things to other kids that make them uncomfortable.

Q: How do you address the fears younger students might have about playing sports in the future?

Drs. Farst and Worley

Parents have a difficult decision on what they decide are safe settings. The parent has to feel comfortable that the adult that is in charge of the minors have their best interest at heart.

Q: Any advice to the people dealing with the students admitting involvement?

Dr. Worley

They’re still kids. They still need a positive life and positive interactions with others. They probably need some treatment. These are kids.

Dr. Farst

You’re not helping the person who offended in this way by pretending that it didn’t happen. You have to give them the opportunity to learn about consent and healthy behaviors because if they don’t learn it now in their formative years, then it’s going to make them so very high risk to have bad things happen when they’re an adult. 

Pretending it didn’t happen is not protective of the people who offend. It actually hurts them. 

Dr. Worley

Being punitive as a community to a child or a teen is not going to give them an opportunity to step forward and take responsibility. They’re going to have to have some room and support for them to do that and it might take some time for them to do that and process that. So having someone running around with a baseball bat is not helpful in getting them an opportunity to learn about things like consent. 

Q: Any last comments?

Dr. Farst

Parents don’t need to beat themselves up for allowing this to happen. And, if a child doesn’t disclose it readily, don’t think it’s that your child doesn’t love you or trust you. It’s really hard for kids to tell their parents and they will usually tell someone else that’s trusted because they don’t want to upset the family dynamic. They don’t want to hurt their parents feeling. 

Parents don’t need to take blame for not protecting them. For some parents, this could also trigger PTSD for things the have happened to them and things that they have not dealt with. 

So it may be that not only do the kids need counseling, but adults might need it too.