Sehome High School former head football coach Kevin Beason was aware of hazing within his team before administrators found out through an outside tip early in the 2022 season, but he did not report it, according to school district documents obtained by Cascadia Daily News.
Hazing incidents last summer catalyzed a series of events, including some players quitting the football team, the forfeit of a Sept. 16 game after a video surfaced, public outcry over school administrators’ handling of the situation, and finally Beason’s November resignation.
Beason maintained he had no prior knowledge of hazing on his team — both incidents occurred on Aug. 26 — and this week told CDN he found out about the incidents on Sept. 9 via a phone call with the parent of a boy who was quitting the team. During the call, the parent shared information with Beason about a hazing incident at a team dinner and said there was a “power dynamic” within the team, according to a district timeline of events obtained by CDN via public records requests.
“I learned about it about the same time everybody else learned about it,” Beason said during a January phone interview. He met with his team captains on Sept. 12 to discuss the incidents, he said.
Bellingham Public Schools first heard of the hazing through a Sept. 14 tip from someone in a neighboring district “that there is hazing occurring on the Sehome football team,” according to the timeline.
“We will need to investigate this fully with the team and address the coach(es) lack of reporting,” Laurel Peak, director of District Activities and Athletics and Title IX coordinator, said in a Sept. 14 text message to other school administrators. All employees are required to report incidents of bullying, harassment and intimidation, typically to their supervisor, Dana Smith, district assistant director of communications, told CDN in an email.
Two days later, school and district administration confirmed multiple hazing incidents on Aug. 26, one during a team dinner off campus, and a separate incident caught on video in which one student was hazed on campus in front of 20 peers, according to documents. No school staff were present at the events.
“We are discussing not playing. Based on the video we just watched,” Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Jay Jordan said in the group text message the afternoon before the team forfeited its Sept. 16 game against Sedro-Woolley. The referenced video has not been made publicly available.
The same day, the school made a report to Child Protective Services and consulted Bellingham Police Department about the incidents, documents state. Jordan also called “people in the medical community about the Sehome football incident.”
School administrators have declined to discuss specifics of the incidents, citing privacy laws, and were careful not to describe them in internal communications reviewed by CDN.
Coach is disciplined
Superintendent Greg Baker was directly involved in discussions of the hazing incidents.
Beason “knew about this. Didn’t report it,” Baker said in a group text message on Sept. 16 — hours before Beason was placed on paid administrative leave. Beason was directed not to have contact with students, families or staff, and to not discuss the incident with anyone while the incidents were being investigated, according to documents.
Some school administrators were torn about placing Beason on leave. “I’m not sure we made the right decision but I know we did our absolute best,” Sehome Activity and Athletics Coordinator Colin Cushman said in a Sept. 17 group text to Peak and Sehome Principal Sonia Cole.
“I’ve put a lot of thought into Kevin Bs situation,” Cushman continued. “He made some bad choices last week for sure but I don’t think it outweighs all the good he has done. He is a good man with a good heart and I’m not sure I did a good job relaying that to the team. I don’t believe we would have relieved most coaches under similar circumstances.”
Cole responded she didn’t know enough about “what typically happens if someone fails to report and disregard the directive not to talk to anyone about it.”
Beason returned from leave and met with the team on Sept. 20, admitting “there were things [he] should have done that he did not do. He also told players there are things that Colin and Sonia cannot tell them, but he can,” according to the district’s timeline of events.
Three months later, Beason resigned, stating in a post on his personal Facebook page that he was given an ultimatum by the school administration to resign or not have his contract renewed. Beason said he felt like he was being used as a scapegoat.
“The reason that the school gave for moving on from me was ‘a failure to improve the team culture significantly enough in my tenure,’” he said during a January phone interview.
A national expert on hazing cases said the school district’s response to the incident was common, if not on the mild side.
A coach is almost always let go after a hazing event surfaces, said Dr. Susan Lipkins, a psychologist, expert witness in hazing cases and author of “Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers, and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment, and Humiliation.” A coach knowing about hazing activities taking place on their team is also common, she said.
A divided response
The community seemed split in response to the news, with some football parents outraged at the decision to cut Beason, and others commending the district for taking action after months of declining to discuss the incident in detail, citing federal privacy laws.
Cole received “a couple pretty harsh emails from people who think boys will be boys,” Jordan said in a text to Peak. On one end of the public-response spectrum: “I know Sehome is extra soft compared to county schools but please don’t ruin anymore of the season,” a redacted email from a parent to Cole read. “I hope you start to eventually understand football is a culture and a family and it’s just big brother little brother stuff they’re doing. Let the boys be boys and play… punish the seniors you think is fair but remember you could be ruining their college shot.”
School administrators interviewed families and players on Sept. 16, and the “biggest worry” that arose “was what happens going forward … Some upset parents but if they were open to listening to what happened they could see the issue. Some only care about the impact of missing the game and college football prospects,” Jordan said in a text to Baker.
Lipkins, who has been a psychologist for more than 30 years, said hazing is often viewed as team-building and strengthening the players, and many parents feel the same way.
On the other end of the reaction spectrum, a redacted email to Cole read, “I appreciate that the situation is still being investigated. However, it seems that forfeiting one game out of the season is an insignificant consequence for what is being reported as a serious incident. Other school districts in the U.S. have cancelled entire seasons due to serious hazing incidents.”
Split responses from a community are common in hazing incidents, where about 15% of people typically support the victims and about 85% of people support the team and coach, Lipkins has observed.
Kevin Huntley, the parent of a sophomore on the team, condemned the school for Beason’s resulting resignation when hazing has “happened on multiple levels, where nothing has gone this far, as far as calling out, forfeiting a game, firing a coach,” he told CDN in a phone interview.
Hazing a pervasive issue
Hazing often isn’t a new phenomenon, Lipkins said, rather it is a “ritual” that increases in severity over time as previous victims become the perpetrators a few years later.
“You have to prove that you’re good enough. So what do we do? We do our tradition. And what’s our tradition? If you ask the kids, those traditions are fun and games,” Lipkins said. “If you look at it from a hazing expert point of view, they are psychologically and physically harmful or potentially harmful.”
Sehome Principal Sonia Cole confirmed in a Nov. 29 letter to the school that “this type of behavior has been experienced by and perpetuated by Sehome football student-athletes for years,” although never before reported to school officials prior to Sept. 14, Smith said in an email.
Huntley said he has known about the history of hazing from peers who attended the high school.
“I’ve got friends who played in the ’90s. I work with people, and I have friends that went to Sehome,” Huntley said. “I know that it happened there.” He noted that the behavior extends beyond the football team at Sehome — basketball and cheerleading teams have also been involved in hazing.
Several veteran coaches and counselors from Bellingham schools, who asked not to be named, also confirmed knowing of incidents of harassment in local high school sports stretching back many years.
Lipkins said hazing is prevalent in any group with a hierarchical structure, making it rife in youth and college athletics.
“Unlike bullying, hazing is a group activity and the humiliation, often sexual, sears the psyche,” she said. “The fact that the whole team is watching, and soon the school and community will know, increases the suffering of the victims. Essentially, the victims are helpless initially, and in the aftermath, they have no escape from the embarrassment. Often victims have to move schools or homes.”
Addressing the behavior
Changing a toxic culture like hazing is very difficult, Lipkins said. A change often must happen from the inside, whether it is victims banding together to come forward and say “enough is enough” or authority figures like coaches presenting a zero-tolerance policy early in the season.
Through conversations with coaching groups across the U.S., Lipkins finds they, on average, spend less than one minute per season talking about hazing with their teams.
Beason said he had not talked to his team about hazing before it happened.
“The coach has more power than a parent, more power than any authority figure because there’s nothing more that an athlete wants than to be in the good graces of the coach. The coach has a lot of psychological power if and when they want to use it,” Lipkins said.
Hazing is less likely to occur in teams that try to remove their hierarchical dynamic — for instance, seniors carry the water cooler as frequently as freshmen during practices, she said. But, because many coaches have “day jobs,” leadership opportunities fall on team captains and there’s often a period of time the youth are unsupervised by an adult. Beason still works as a teacher in the Special Programs and Services Department of the Northwest Educational Service District.
In that case, a cultural change also relies on school administration, Lipkins said.
Records indicate Sehome and district administrators immediately launched a program of team counseling after reports of the hazing incidents. Attending the sessions was required to play in games once the schedule resumed. The school also required future team dinners to be on campus.
Huntley said he understood someone had to accept blame and punishment for the hazing incidents that occurred last fall. But it shouldn’t have been Beason, he said. Because of Beason’s resignation, Huntley and another parent stepped down from the football booster club after four years. He fears some juniors don’t plan on returning to the team for the 2023 season.
“I’m not sure if they could have handled it differently. I understand that someone has to fall on the sword,” Huntley said. “If anything, I think it’s got to start at the top.”
Sehome’s investigation into the hazing concluded in early October, according to records, which include no documentation of any punitive action taken against student-athletes. The team went on to complete a 7-3 season, going 4-3 in Northwest Conference games.
Bellingham Public Schools announced Friday, Jan. 27 that Brian Young will be Sehome’s new head football coach. Young previously served as an assistant coach at Squalicum High School.
Assistant Director of Communications Smith said the district is updating its code of conduct “to reflect more specific language around hazing and student conduct. We anticipate adopting this new code of conduct for the 2023-24 school year.”
She also said the district has already begun increasing trainings and conversations about healthy teambuilding, and raising awareness among students that hazing is a type of harassment, intimidation and bullying.
Experts describe erasing ingrained hazing cultures as a long-term process, with the degree of change dependent on how seriously the matter is initially taken.
“The concept that ‘boys will be boys’ — it’s that same reason that coaches let it happen because it’s like, ‘This has been happening forever, why would we change it? We have a winning team. Leave us alone. It’s not so bad.’ And it’s really not so bad unless it’s your son, and then it’s really bad,” Lipkins said.
Connor J. Benintendi contributed to the reporting of this story.
A previous version of this story misstated what grade Kevin Huntley’s son is in. He is a sophomore. The story was updated on Feb. 1, 2023, at 10:42 a.m. to reflect this change. The Cascadia Daily News regrets the error.