LA VERNIA, Texas – It has been a little more than four months since the La Vernia sex assault scandal rocked the small town and made national headlines. Now the district is preparing for a new school year and has made changes to address student safety.
In an exclusive interview with KSAT 12, the district superintendent said it was an “underground culture” that resulted in the arrests of former student athletes, and rebuilding trust and the reputation of the district will be key.
In two weeks, the classrooms and halls of La Vernia High School will fill with students and staff.
La Vernia ISD Superintendent Dr. Jose Moreno said it's a fresh start.
"I think the town is ready to move on, I think the community is ready to move on," Moreno said. "We're going to be OK as we start moving forward."
The changes are there.
- A full-time police officer at the high school campus
- A revamped way to report bullying online
- More time with school counselors and better training for teachers
The district is also growing. Enrollment is up, with the freshman class counting 300 students, and the district has hired more elementary teachers.
But Moreno said he can't ignore the past.
Thirteen now former student athletes are awaiting formal charges for sexually assaulting younger teammates during hazing.
The police chief said the crimes go back to 2014.
Moreno said he had no idea the alleged crimes were going on before the first victim came forward in February.
He maintains despite what happened, the district had the right protocols and processes in place.
"I can tell you as a school district we've done everything that we need to do to be able to handle things properly," said Moreno.
As to whether it was preventable, the superintendent replied it was “an underground culture.”
"I think that this was an underground culture among a few students, and those are the students that we still care about, but I think that as soon as we found out what we needed to find out, at that point we did what we needed to do as a school district " Moreno said.
Looking back to how he handled it when the news broke in March with the first arrests, Moreno says they did it right when communicating with parents and students, and would do it again.
As KSAT covered the story through the end of the 2016-2017 school year, we talked to parents frustrated with a lack of specifics from the district.
Moreno has said investigators prevented him from saying much.
"To even be able to say 'The allegations of sexual assault,' that was through the investigative process, and what directions we were given by the authorities," said Moreno.
The internal investigation into what staff may have known is still ongoing, and the superintendent said they've had no conclusions.
As to when the suspects will be formally charged, Moreno said he is still waiting on updates from the Texas Attorney General's Office.
"This is not something that we rush, this is something we take step by step," Moreno said of the investigations.
He understands the reputation he must rebuild.
A civil suit on behalf of the victims alleged a "pervasive rape culture," and that coaches knew.
"Statements like that have been very hurtful to our school district, because we know the character of our kids. We have some students who made some bad choices, and we have 3,300 other kids that we know are making the right choices," said Moreno.
With fall comes football season and the team the hazing surrounds will hit the gridiron.
Normal banter on the field, could turn nasty.
"Could that be something that occurs? We will anticipate that, and with that comes preparation," Moreno said of preparing students for possible ridicule by students from other districts.
To those passing judgment, Moreno advises them to assume nothing a warning of sorts suggesting what rocked his community, could happen to anyone.
"Across the state of Texas and beyond, I think it's always something that we should all, always be aware of and prepared for," said Moreno.
It is a message he also has for parents in his own community, including those who may never forgive the district for what happened under his watch.
“I know that every single day that I get up and I come to work, I'm going to do whatever it takes,” Moreno said.
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