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High school hazing arrests shock and divide small football community in rural California

Dos Palos High School
In this undated photo, unidentified members of the Dos Palos High School raise their helmets during the playing of the national anthem on home field.
(Gene Lieb / Los Banos Enterprise/Merced Sun-Star via Associated Press)

In any other year, Friday night’s match between the Dos Palos High School football team and its foremost county rival would be celebrated as one of the biggest games of the season. 

But instead of cheering on the beloved Broncos, this small San Joaquin Valley farming community is reeling from the arrests this week of four team members who have been accused of hazing a 14-year-old teammate. 

Although few details have been released about the incident, due to the “sensitive nature of what occurred,” Dos Palos Police Chief Barry Mann said the offense occurred on campus Sept. 7. The identities of the students have been withheld because they are minors, but Mann said that three of the arrested boys were age 17 and one was 16.

The Merced County district attorney so far has charged three varsity players with one felony count of false imprisonment and all with one misdemeanor count of hazing.

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“If all the information holds true, it will definitely be one of the worst situations we have had to deal with when it comes to bullying or hazing,” the police chief said.

The episode, some officials say, appears to echo a case of hazing in Hesperia, which was chronicled this week by the sports network ESPN. It has also stunned a community that has long considered its high school football team a source of pride and inspiration. 

“There appears to be sides developing,” Mann said. “It’s rapidly becoming a heated issue in the community.”

Football, the chief said, is “the single biggest deal” in the Merced County city, and investigating the incident has been difficult.

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Mann said he knows every family and child, and has even coached basketball in town.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” said Mann who oversees seven officers.

Wedged between the two major cities of Fresno and San Jose, Dos Palos is a 2.2-square-mile community of roughly 5,000 residents covered by fields of cotton, melons, almonds and pistachios. Perhaps the largest open space not dedicated to agriculture is the school’s football field, which is considered sacred ground to residents. 

“It’s a great place,” City Manager Darrell Fonseca said of Dos Palos. “It has good values. It’s America.”

With alumni that include the late former Oakland Athletics’ star Dave Henderson and NFL legends Malcolm “Ike” Frankian and William “Bill” Stewart, the community is steeped in tradition.

After playing for the Boston Redskins and the New York Giants, Frankian returned to Dos Palos to coach the football team. The winning team, which is now coached by Rob Calvert, has dozens of state league titles and California Interscholastic Federation section state titles.

“The face of our community has been the football team for years,” Fonseca said.

On game night, more than half the town shows up to the football field, sporting the team’s colors -- royal blue and gold. The high school’s football program unifies the town’s residents, who’d say “We are blue,” he said.

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Fonseca said the latest controversy is the “buzz of the community. Everybody is talking about it.”

“It’s cast a pall over the community,” he said

It is unclear what the recent arrests will do to the football program, but William Spalding, superintendent of Dos Palos-Oro Loma Joint Unified School District, said the students have not returned to school.

“When that occurs, the students face significant school disciplinary procedures in addition to whatever criminal complaints have been filed,” he said.

The school and police, Spalding said, are investigating the case and will ensure any participants are dealt with accordingly. 

“Student safety and appropriate conduct …  are our fundamental obligations to our students and our community,” Spalding said.

Conversations about the hazing have been happening among families throughout town, even in Fonseca’s home.

On Thursday, his granddaughter and her friends were visiting and appeared sullen as they talked about the hazing, he said.

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His granddaughter asked, “What do we do?”

Fonseca thought about his answer, then told her, “First, you gotta believe our system works and realize there are going to be consequences on teammates.”

Then the community, he said, has to try to heal.

On Friday, the football team was playing its longest-running rival, Los Banos High School.

The Los Banos Unified School District is also dealing with allegations of inappropriate teacher conduct with students and bribery involving a school board member.

“We need healing. They need healing,” Fonseca said. “Maybe we can heal together somehow.”

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

For breaking news in California, follow VeronicaRochaLA on Twitter.

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