Assault raises questions at Blue Earth Area

BLUE EARTH — When should a school district intervene — and which school officials — when students face serious criminal accusations that also reflect on the school’s bullying and extracurricular eligibility policies?

Those are questions Blue Earth Area is grappling with in the wake of charges against four football players accused of holding down and beating a teammate at a party in Winnebago on Oct. 19.

The four were allowed to play in a state quarterfinal game on Nov. 10, even though school officials had knowledge of the incident. On Nov. 17, the teens were arrested and charged.

The football players — Wyatt Tungland, Dalton Nagel, Blake Barnett and Caden Ochsendorf — reportedly punched and slapped the alleged victim until he was unconscious, causing a concussion, and severe bruising and swelling to his face, according to the criminal complaint filed by the Winnebago Police Department.

Tungland is charged with third-degree assault causing substantial bodily harm, as well as aiding and abetting third-degree assault. He is scheduled to make an initial court appearance Monday.

Nagel is charged with aiding and abetting third-degree assault, while Barnett and Ochsendorf are charged with third-degree assault causing substantial bodily harm, and aiding and abetting.

Blue Earth Area Superintendent Evan Gough was quoted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Nov. 27 as saying it would not have been fair to bench the players accused of the assault based on accusations and not hard facts, and that the district would need eyewitness accounts, admissions of guilt, and video or photo evidence. On Wednesday, Gough said he was misquoted, and that his comments were not about the current investigation, but instead about how he would handle such a matter as a school principal. Because the current investigation is ongoing by the Winnebago Police Department, Gough said Wednesday he cannot comment on it. He did say that when schools handle investigations, they cannot just accept someone’s complaint as fact.

According to the district’s bullying prohibition policy, the school must undertake or authorize an investigation within three days of receiving the complaint or report of bullying or other prohibited conduct. Gough said that who is involved in conducting the investigation (in addition to the superintendent) depends on the circumstances surrounding it. If the investigation involves athletics, Gough said the athletic department could be involved.

While the alleged victim returned to football practice with visible injuries following the Oct. 19 party, the assault was not reported to the school until weeks later by the alleged victim’s mother. According to the district harassment and violence policy, any teacher, school administrator, volunteer, contractor or other school employee must inform the proper school official immediately if they have knowledge or belief of conduct that may constitute harassment or violence. The reports or complaints of harassment or violence would then go to the superintendent.

Gough’s comments on Wednesday came a day after his “State of the District” address, in which he touched briefly on the alleged assault. He said Blue Earth Area will set up an anti-bullying task force, in the wake of a public outcry at the Nov. 20 school board meeting. Citizens blasted the district not only for the recent incident involving the football players, but also described a history of bullying that the district has not properly addressed.