Editor’s note: Due to the sensitive nature of the issues and fear of retaliation, some names in this story were changed to protect their identities.
DULUTH — As allegations of misconduct by Proctor, Minnesota, high school football players are being reviewed by the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office for possible criminal charges, some former students are speaking about their own experiences in the district.
Former coach Derek Parendo resigned from all his positions with Proctor Public Schools on Oct. 11.
When reached by phone, Parendo declined to comment for this story. Parendo told Fox 21 in an interview Oct. 13 that the event that sparked the Proctor Police Department investigation was an “isolated incident.”
However, a News Tribune investigation found multiple instances of Proctor football players behaving in an abusive manner for years.
In October 2008 — the first season Parendo, a former Proctor football player himself, served as head coach — Matthew Graves was at football practice at the Proctor High School field when the older players on the football team organized what had been known through the years as a “fight circle.” According to claims made in a lawsuit filed against the school district, a fight circle involved two players acting as combatants. Older students selected younger ones to be in the circle.
According to the civil complaint, this was not a normal football drill, but an improper and unsupervised activity devised by football players through the years at Proctor.
The lawsuit alleges the coaching staff was aware that the fight circle occurred and did nothing to stop it or discourage it. On the day in question, the staff did not go out to the practice field right away and a fight circle was formed. While Graves participated in the fight circle, his right femur was broken, requiring a surgical procedure, placement of a rod and future surgery.
Graves’ attorney, Robert Falsani, told the News Tribune that due to the circumstances of the settlement agreement, Graves was unable to talk to reporters for this story.
The school district, represented at the time of the incident by Hibbing attorney Larry Minton, contended the injury occurred during a tackling drill.
Court documents included a letter from Parendo to parents and players that acknowledged an activity took place without the coaches' knowledge. The letter didn’t include the term “fight circle.”
"Upon questioning of the team members (we) determined that this activity, in which students of equal size and strength were participating, was a tackling activity prior to football practice," Parendo wrote. "Please note that we do not support this activity, and the dangers involved in any such unsupervised physical contact will be made known to the team.
"In the course of this investigation we found that some players and parents knew about this activity for quite some time; however, the coaches did not."
In his Fox 21 interview Oct. 13, Parendo said coaches are no more to blame for players’ behavior outside practice and games than administrators.
“I didn’t know that was going to happen. I had no prior clue,” Parendo said in the interview. “We don’t endorse that behavior. If you’re blaming me as the head coach, then why isn’t it the principal and the superintendent for creating the environment at school for this? I mean, where does it stop?”
In the interview, Parendo blasted the “toxic environment” in Proctor. Parendo said he had no knowledge of what happened and could not have prevented it.
“If you go ask any of the football players over the last 14 years what our environment is like, we’ve never had any previous behaviors that would be out of line, per se, with anything like this,” Parendo told Fox 21. “This just seems like such a far-reaching, egregious act. I look at it as I don’t know what I could have done differently.”
Many former students and parents of former students have come forward since the Fox 21 interview alleging football players have gotten special treatment in the past and many were known to bully other students.
Principal Tim Rohweder and Superintendent John Engelking declined to talk about the allegations of bullying and harassment detailed in this story.
The school district has yet to respond to a number of data requests, including the settlement in the lawsuit resulting from the unsupervised practice in 2008.
'I was terrified and in pain'
Parendo’s claims of the recent “misconduct” being “an isolated incident” caused a number of former students and parents to speak up about alleged harassment and abuse by football players going back nearly 30 years.
Jane, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said when she saw that interview, she had to tell her family’s story.
Both of Jane’s children graduated from Proctor High School, and she said while they were in school, her son, Justin, was relentlessly bullied by football team members. It got so bad, Jane filed an incident report with the police department.
While Parendo was not yet the head coach, he and Rohweder were assistants on the squad at the time.
In October 2007, Justin was walking home from school with his friend, Mary (both names have been changed to protect their identities), when a car pulled alongside them and started driving slowly next to him. Justin wrote in a statement to the police that the four students in the car started yelling homophobic slurs at Justin as well as “a numerous amount of other horrible words.”
Justin said he and Mary kept walking, trying to ignore the football players in the car, but he got frustrated and threw his coffee cup at the car, hitting the windshield.
“They pulled over and I heard them scream and mumble things like ‘get that little f---er’ and ‘I’m gunna kill you!’ (sic) and things like that,” Justin wrote in his deposition.
Justin told the News Tribune in a recent interview that he remembers running with Mary from the driver of the car.
“He caught up and started shoving me to the point where I fell down, at this point I was on the sidewalk,” Justin wrote in his deposition. “I was terrified and in pain. Mary was screaming at him and telling him to stop, she was scared.”
The driver forced Justin to go back to the car, the deposition said. When he got a chance, he ran into a nearby business for safety, but according to the statement, the business owner gave him paper towels and told him to clean the car off.
Clayton Cook, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said the fundamental notion of bullying and victimization is that victims ultimately don’t feel like they have the power to make it stop.
Cook served on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s expert panel that developed a uniform definition of bullying. He also works in schools on mental health issues and specializes in topics such as bullying and victimization.
Cook said he has helped the integration of programs and practices that promote students’ social, emotional and behavioral functioning and has worked with school systems worldwide. He has also worked with Duluth Public Schools in the past.
Research shows there is a perception among youth that adults are more likely to let things slide, so they don’t seek help, Cook said.
In this incident, Justin said he went to an adult for help, but was turned right back toward his abusers and things got worse. When Justin was wiping off the car, he said, people gathered around him, laughed and called him names.
“At the time, all I could think of was how scared I was and I just went along with it,” Justin wrote. “I felt horrible. I wiped off his car; feeling embarrassed and humiliated.”
Cook said even adults' perception of students who bully others can cause lasting damage.
“Unfortunately, many young people don’t feel like they can seek help and that the adults are going to do anything about it,” Cook said. “That’s where it becomes something someone ruminates on and that’s what produces the wear and tear on the individual.”
Jane said Justin wouldn’t tell them what happened, but he eventually opened up to his sister. After this incident, Jane decided to get as much information as possible and filed a report with the police and the school district.
After she went to the school with comments on Justin’s MySpace social media account as proof of what happened, school officials said all they could do was suspend the players from a football game or two.
According to documents provided to the News Tribune, the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office told Jane there wasn’t enough evidence to file charges against the students, but there might be enough for a restraining order. The letter stated that the attorney’s office checked with the school district, which said the students were disciplined.
Justin said it got worse for him after that.
“Everyone was angry at me for that because the team was undefeated that season,” Justin said.
Jane said their family would get dirty looks and was treated poorly after she filed the complaint.
She said once Justin graduated, they decided to isolate themselves away from the school district and football team. But when the news broke alleging “serious misconduct” involving the Proctor football team this year, Jane said her heart sank.
“Once my son graduated, we just walked away. But did we fail other boys? Did we fail this boy?” Jane wondered. “It breaks my heart to this day for what he went through. You send your kids off to school and you think they’ll be safe.”
Justin said one of the football players in the car did eventually apologize to him and they became friends.
Jane gave Justin the option to transfer after the incident, but he didn’t want to.
“I had friends, like Mary, that were very supportive,” Justin said.
Looking back, Justin said he wishes he would have transferred out of Proctor. He hated high school so much, he said, that it's one of the reasons he didn’t continue his education into college.
“There were other things that made me decide that, but I just really didn’t enjoy school because of certain people that made school a miserable experience,” Justin said.
Cook said the experiences students have in school can alter their trajectory.
“We look at everybody as on a developmental trajectory and the things that are happening now are a pathway toward things in the future,” Cook said. “So when people's developmental trajectory gets harmed, that could put someone at increased risk for negative outcomes in the future.
“So what it boils down to is bullying, and repeated exposure to bullying, can alter someone’s developmental trajectory.”
1992 graduate filed harassment complaint
Eric Pearson graduated from Proctor in 1992. Pearson said he wasn’t surprised when he heard about what happened with the football team.
“I think it’s a culture overall that sports boys at Proctor can get away with anything and most of those guys are in the football and hockey program,” Pearson said.
Pearson said he was bullied constantly by a football player when he was in high school. The player would kick his chair, push him into the lockers, throw things at him and call him homophobic slurs. Pearson, who is gay, said this player did the same thing to a friend of his. Eventually, Pearson and the girl had enough and filed a sexual harassment charge against the player with the school district.
After the complaint was filed, Pearson said, the player was punished and the district brought in an outside person to give students a seminar about bullying and harassment.
Pearson said he was also bothered by the comment Parendo made about the allegations being an “isolated incident.”
Pearson said when he heard about the recent allegations, his thoughts immediately went out to the victim.
“The fact that there are (allegedly) Snapchat photos out there that he’ll never get away from … he’ll be assaulted by the memory for the rest of his life,” Pearson said.
Man attacked at gravel pit party in 2012
Pearson, who has moved out of state, said he left because he feels like many people in the Proctor community have an issue with anyone who is considered “different” religiously, ethnically or sexually. Pearson pointed to an incident that occurred in 2012 when he was still living in Proctor.
When Max Pelofske arrived at a party at a gravel pit in May 2012, he was simply hoping to congratulate a friend’s sister on her graduation from Proctor.
The party featured a large number of people drinking, including Proctor students at the time, according to the criminal complaint.
When he and his friend, Kelly Johnson, arrived at the party, Pelofske said he was approached by a former Proctor football player, later identified as Randall Casper-Austin Bauer, the complaint said.
Bauer asked Pelofske if he was gay, according to multiple witnesses interviewed by the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, and Pelofske confirmed that he was.
Another man, Tyler Schubert, then tackled Pelofske and a fight ensued where multiple people punched or kicked Pelofske, the complaint said.
Schubert attempted to flee the scene in a vehicle, but was stopped by a sheriff's deputy using a PIT — pursuit intervention technique — maneuver.
Schubert told the deputy he was unaware of Pelofske’s sexual orientation and was angered when he saw Pelofske shove another person at the party, the complaint said.
The deputy who arrived found Pelofske with an abrasion on his chin and his shirt ripped and wet, but with no serious injuries.
Schubert had a cut lip where he claimed Pelofske kicked him during the altercation.
Pelofske, Johnson and Schubert were convicted of disorderly conduct after the fight.
In addition, Wesley Richard Alberg was also convicted of disorderly conduct. Alberg admitted to police he kicked Pelofske “a couple of times until someone pulled him off,” according to the complaint.
Bauer and Schubert, as well as two other people named in the complaint, but not convicted, were listed as members of the 2010 or 2011 Proctor football teams on the MaxPreps website.
‘Bullying is not just a Proctor issue’
According to Minnesota Department of Education disciplinary data for Proctor Public Schools between 2014 and 2019, there were 34 incidents of assault, three incidents of bullying, 27 incidents of harassment and 17 incidents of threats.
The number of assaults peaked in 2015-16 at 14, but has declined significantly since, while the number of harassment incidents has risen. Comparing disciplinary data to districts of similar size, the number of incidents in Proctor are two to three times higher.
“The phenomenon of bullying is not just a Proctor issue, although (the recent misconduct) has been raised to the level of getting community and public attention,” Cook said.
According to the CDC, 1 in 5 high school students reported being bullied at school in 2019 and more than 1 in 6 high school students reported being cyberbullied. Nearly 40% of high school students in the country who identify as LGBTQ and about 33% of those who were unsure of their sexual identity experienced bullying at school or electronically, compared to 22% of heterosexual high school students, CDC data says.
Cook said bullying is considered a public health issue and is being tracked and monitored as such by the CDC.
“This is one of those where we're now putting a microscope on Proctor as being kind of a test case,” Cook said, referring to the most recent allegations. “But if schools aren't careful, this is happening in their walls and could potentially become a public event as well.”
Bullying and harassment in Proctor
According to Proctor Public Schools Policy 514, “Bullying Prohibition,” an act of bullying by either an individual student or group of students “is expressly prohibited on school premises, school district property, school functions or activities or on school transportation.” The policy applies to both students who engage in bullying and students who condone or support another student’s act of bullying.
The policy states that people who believe they have been a target or victim of bullying should immediately report the alleged acts to the building principal, school district human rights officer or superintendent. The building’s principal is responsible for receiving reports of bullying or other prohibited conduct at the building level.
There are posters in Proctor classrooms that help students understand and “self-identify” bullying and when it should be reported, Rohweder said.
“One of the things we have posted in classrooms is, ‘Is it bullying?’” Rohweder said. “When someone says or does something unintentionally hurtful — if they do it once, it’s typically called rude. When someone does or says something intentionally hurtful and they do it once, it’s mean. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and keeps doing it even if you tell them to stop, that’s bullying.”
Cook said many administrators do the “initial legwork” of establishing a positive, healthy culture in their schools.
“The thing that’s missing in a lot of schools is they establish those expectations,” Cook said, “But if they’re not teaching, modeling, reinforcing and then effectively holding students accountable in a supportive way when they’re engaging in behaviors that are inconsistent with that, nothing will change.”
Rohweder also pointed to Proctor’s “RailStrong” initiative that encourages positive behavior and asks students and faculty to represent the school well.
“To us, 'RailStrong' means doing the right thing at all times, even when no one is watching, and representing your community, yourself, your family and your school in a positive way at all times,” Rohweder said. “We tell our students we strive to be 'RailStrong' at all times and that obviously includes how we treat people.”
Though Cook is not familiar with the "RailStrong" program, he said it sounds like they have a good foundation for a program. Cook said adults being part of the solution can help with the culture of any school.
“It begins with adults in a building, really creating that culture because the adults are designing the experiences for the students,” he said. “If the adults are very intentional and deliberate about the environment they’ve created, that is the environment in which students start to more adhere to and become a part of.
“We can work in partnership with students to think about the healthy positive kind of school culture that can be co-created by all those in that setting, but it has to be activated by the adults.”