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Allegheny

3 Steel Valley football camp organizers charged over hazing allegations

| Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, 11:03 a.m.
Laurel Hill State Park
Wikimedia Commons
Laurel Hill State Park
The Steel Valley Midget Football Association logo.
The Steel Valley Midget Football Association logo.

Authorities in Somerset County say the Homestead-based Steel Valley Midget Football Association ran a football camp in Laurel Hill State Park last month that allowed and encouraged hazing and physical abuse.

Somerset District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser said Camp Ruffhouse, which ran for 11- to 14-year-olds from July 7-12, first came to police attention when park visitors reported that a 12-year-old was being assaulted along a park road by two older campers. He told officers he was running away from the camp because of abuse from other players and “mistreatment” by coaches, Lazzari-Strasiser said.

Another player's family contacted police after he came home from camp with a black eye and swollen lip, reporting that the younger boys were routinely hazed by the older ones.

“Both juveniles report that camp staffers were told about the chronic abuse. ... But the problems were never addressed,” Lazzari-Strasiser said. “Rather, they report that campers who complained were called snitches, told by coaches to hit their aggressors back, and even punished by being made to run laps or stand in the middle of hitting drills.”

The District Attorney's Office filed two counts each of endangering the welfare of children, a third-degree felony, against Steel Valley Midget Football Association Director Aaron Knight, Executive Director Loren Ford and camp director/leader Michael Todd.

The charges were filed Wednesday with District Judge Sandra Stevanus. Court documents showed Knight and Todd had been arraigned and released on $75,000 unsecured bonds, but Ford's paperwork did not show his status as of Wednesday afternoon.

Angela Whitney, whose 13-year-old son, Trenton, attended the camp, was pleased authorities decided to pursue charges against the camp organizers after learning what her son and others endured.

“Those people should not be supervising anything with children. They went up there Friday, and I get a call Monday from one of the coaches that there was some back and forth between a couple of the boys and my son began walking back home,” Whitney said.

“He then told me everything was OK,” she said.

On the evening of July 11, Whitney received a second call from park rangers and Somerset children's services.

“They said a motorist had come upon my son walking in the middle of the road near the park that day. My son explained that he had been beaten up by a couple of the older boys who had been told by the coaches up there to go out and find my son because he had run away,” Whitney said.

Whitney said her son told her that he had been vomiting for four days.

“I think he was sick from the anxiety as a result of the physical abuse he was taking from the other boys. But I should have been told,” Whitney said.

“I have five boys and I know what roughhousing is, but leaving boys those ages completely unsupervised, that's what's going to happen. ... There was no organization at all,” she said.

Whitney said camp organizers told Trenton they had telephoned his mother about his concerns.

“They told him that I told them to tell Trenton to cry himself to sleep in his pillow ... and if he didn't behave, his father would beat his (expletive) when he got home,” Watkins said.

“I would never say that,” she added.

Watkins said Trenton had attended the camp the previous year with no such problems.

Another parent, Jennifer Wilson, was alarmed when her 11-year-old son, Jevon, returned home with a cut near his eye and “multiple bruises on his face, arms and lip.”

“I was never called ... nothing whatsoever,” Wilson said.

“I paid good money for him to attend that camp, and he was supposed to be protected with adult supervision, but there was no supervision there. When I asked one of the organizers, he told me the kids who did that had to run laps,” she said.

“That is unacceptable for what happened to my son. Jevon was a very happy kid when he left for camp and I was a happy mother. ... Now we both feel horrible over what happened,” Wilson said.

Both Whitney and Wilson said their children will no longer be associated with the midget football organization.

“I still think a lot of the parents don't know what happened at the camp,” Wilson added.

The District Attorney's Office noted that the football association wouldn't give investigators a list of players, so investigators are asking anyone with information about who attended the camp to contact Laurel Hill State Park rangers at 814-445-7725 and ask for Officer Peck.

Park officials declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Attorney Lena Bryan-Henderson of Pittsburgh, who is representing both Knight and Todd, said her clients intend to fight the complaints and maintain they are innocent.

“Of course we intend to fight it. It's the commonwealth's obligation to prove these charges beyond a reasonable doubt. ... There is a presumption of innocence here,” Henderson said.

She declined to comment further.

Paul Peirce and Matthew Santoni are Tribune-Review staff writers.

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