Sam Bennett, a youth pastor at First Assembly of God in Huntsville, heard rumors about what had been taking place in the boys’ locker room after Huntsville Junior High School basketball games before a story about the incidents was published in the The Madison County Record on June 10. 

Bennett addressed the issues in an indirect way in one of his sermons to the church’s youth group. He told the youth, “God is a God of second chances. What you did, it can be forgiven. You can move past it, but you need to know that it was wrong. 

“There’s no place for this kind of stuff. There’s no place for people to talk like they love God on Wednesday nights, but they go live a different life. That’s kind of the approach I took,” Bennett said.

Later that night, two boys told Bennett that they had been involved in the incidents. One admitted to “baptizing” a teammate and the other said he had been in the locker room, but had done nothing to stop other boys from restraining players.

“I had a couple of kids who came out afterwards to talk to me. One of them was actually a part of everything,” Bennett said. According to Bennett, the student has shown remorse since then and told Bennett he wanted to change his life. 

“He wanted me to know that he did that, but he wanted a way out. Like he wanted just to seek that forgiveness that God gives and live a different life,” Bennett said.

The boys Bennett spoke about had been involved in incidents involving the junior high boys basketball players “baptizing” other players. 

According to multiple reports, both written and verbal, voluntarily provided to The Record by multiple people and included in Title IX sexual harassment/sexual assault investigatory documents, 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.  

Despite decision makers recommending expelling two students for a year and giving three students out-of-school suspension for five days, the Huntsville School Board lessened the punishment for two students, expelling them for a semester, and it threw out the recommended punishment for three students, meaning they will not be punished by the school for their part in “baptizing” their teammates.

In his role as youth pastor, Bennett has been working with some students involved in the incidents in various ways, some having been victims, some students being present in the locker room, and he’s mentoring some players that admitted to baptizing other teammates.

Part of working with them is explaining the difference between “locker room antics” and sexual assault.

“What I’ve explained to some of the kids is there’s no room for physically messing with people. There is a line between just kind of joking around and what we’re experiencing in our community now,” he said. 

“And what I’ve told them is that it goes from verbal to physical. And verbal stuff and all that is one thing. … But my personal belief is that once is crosses over from verbal to physical, that is not just morally wrong in our eyes and wrong in God’s eyes,” he said. 

After the incidents were brought to light, more victims are speaking out, stating that they had been baptized. 

Bennett has some advice for those boys. 

“I tell them that it’s not going to be easy. A lot of kids are embarrassed to talk to their parents,” he said. But Bennett tells them that they have to talk to someone, either a counselor or their parent or guardian.

“If you’re a victim, it’s no longer, ‘Well you probably need to talk to somebody,’ No, it’s a necessity now. Talking to somebody, confiding in somebody, it’s a necessity or you’re going to deal with that trauma for a long period of time. You’re going to carry it into your marriage, carry it into your fatherhood or brotherhood. You’re going to carry that with you,” Bennett said.  

When addressing students who are struggling with speaking out, Bennett suggests speaking “to the severity of the situation. You could carry this trauma with you for the rest of your life if you don’t get it out. And your parents know you the best,” Bennett said. 

Bennett doesn’t believe the situation should be ignored, rather he believes talking about it will help bring healing.

The issues have to be addressed and people who say they just want it to go away are not actually helping those that have been involved, Bennett said.  

“There is some trauma in the situation that is unknown right now for those students.”

Parents need to talk to their children, according to Bennett. 

Parents are mature enough to know that there’s some trauma there and parents need to try to initiate conversation. 

“They need to talk about it, they need to get it out. They need to confide in somebody.”

Bennett said talking about the incidents does not traumatize the students again. 

“I think they’ve experienced trauma due to the situation,” Bennett said. 

“I think if that situation had not been allowed to go on then there would have been a lot of trauma that would have been averted. Now to avert the trauma you’ve got to talk about it.

“You’ve got to get it out,” Bennett said. 

According to several reports, “baptizing” has been ongoing for at least two seasons. 

After reports about the incidents came to light, several players have quit the basketball team, some out of fear since the students who restrained players have not been punished by the school.

For those players wishing to remain on the team, Bennett encourages them not to be afraid to speak up. 

“If it ever starts to happen again, if people start talking about it, alluding to it, they need to go get the coach, like right then, right there. You need to put away all of this pressure that they might treat me different, they might look at me different. You can’t think about that in that moment.

“Now that its happened, now that it’s in community, everyone knows about it, you shouldn’t feel as much pressure to go to the coach and say it’s happening again. That it started again.”