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Alleged Hamilton High hazing victims file lawsuit against district, school

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PHOENIX — Alleged victims in the Hamilton High football hazing case filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Chandler Unified School District, Hamilton High School, staff, football coaches, and accused students and their parents.

Staff includes former principal Ken James, former athletic director Shawn Rustad, teacher and former head coach Steve Belles and teacher and former assistant coach Manuel Palomarez.

In March 2017, six Hamilton players were arrested – three charged – on hazing allegations that included charges of sexual assault, kidnapping and aggravated assault.

The alleged victims were sexually, physically and emotionally abused, the lawsuit stated.

The majority of the alleged incidents, which players called “initiations,” were against freshmen. They were allegedly committed primarily by juniors on underclassmen who were called up to practice with the varsity team.

Court documents state the incidents occurred between September 2015 and January 2017 on school grounds. However, at least one former player said similar hazing incidents had occurred for years.

The spouses of James, Rustad, Belles and Palomarez are also included in the lawsuit because Arizona is a community property state and they are being sued in their personal capacity, according to KTAR News 92.3 FM’s legal analyst Monica Lindstrom.

In February, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office said several officials would not be charged due to lack of evidence.

Witnesses with firsthand knowledge did not cooperate with investigators, County Attorney Bill Montgomery said at the time, and information from parents was considered hearsay.

“Without teammates coming forward and assisting with information, we’re unable to go forward and connect the dots,” he said during a press conference.

Because those witnesses did not come forward, Montgomery said he did not have enough corroborating evidence to charge the officials.

“While the allegations are sufficiently detailed for me to personally conclude that they happened, that is insufficient for us to be able to present that information to a jury and meet the burden of proof necessary within our criminal process,” he said.

In March, the district notified parents that James and Rustad were re-assigned to a different campus within the district.

Belles and Palomarez remain listed as teachers on the Hamilton website. Neither are coaches on the football team.

Lindstrom believes this has the possibility of becoming a multi-million dollar case, but could take as many as two to three years to go to trial due to the number of parties involved.

“It is likely this case, or parts of it, could settle prior to trial,” Lindstrom said. “This is a highly emotional and disturbing case that deals with families, teenagers and young adults, which could encourage the parties to settle.”

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