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The La Grande Observer Paper 08/27/14

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Last week, I wrote about how proud La Grande people should be about the kids of the community. To really explain what I meant, I should tell a story about the flip side of the coin.

For years while I was at the Islands' Sounder in the San Juan Islands, we had a running joke about how many members of the football and basketball teams were going to get arrested that season.

After what's gone on in Friday Harbor the past year or two, it really isn't funny anymore.

This week, a young man who was an all-league linebacker for the Friday Harbor football team was convicted of three counts of rape. His buddy, the starting quarterback for Friday Harbor, was convicted of rape last month.

According to the prosecutors, these two football players invited girls over to their houses, and got them so drunk they would pass out, then they had sex with them while they were unconscious. They got away with this for years until some of the girls finally starting coming forward.

I had some inside knowledge about the football players. When they were in middle school, they pulled my boss's son into a broom closet and beat the hell out of him several times over the course of a few weeks. According to my boss, her son was covered in welts and bruises from the beatings.

These losers were suspended from the middle school basketball team, but they weren't suspended from school. Nor did the middle school principal call the cops and file an assault report.

My boss didn't pursue the matter and go to the cops, either, even though her son had been brutalized time and again ... in a broom closet. Why didn't she? They were football stars. She didn't want to make waves.

Shortly after the bullying incidents, one of the kids was arrested for pulling a gun on his mother after she busted him for drinking. I talked to the county sheriff about this kid, and I'll never forget that he told me, "Oh, deep down inside, he's really a good kid. He just has some anger management issues."

Coincidentally, the sheriff's son was a football teammate of the guy.

So, basically, the middle school principal, the sheriff and to a degree, even my former boss, all looked the other way. I'm not surprised these guys eventually pushed the boundaries all the way to felony rape. For years, they got away with bullying other kids and no one in the school or the community ever drew a line. Everyone in town knew about it. It wasn't a secret.

I had to cover these guys through their sophomore and junior years of high school. The linebacker was actually pretty good, and might have had some potential as a small college player if he hadn't been such a screw-up, but I hated covering him. I hated writing anything good about him and his buddy because I knew they represented the worst stereotype of stupid, vicious jock bullies.

I'd like to say the rapes were isolated incidents, but they really weren't. A couple of years ago, a star wrestler at the Friday Harbor High, after getting ripped on liqueur, got into a utterly pointless fight with a tourist (because he hated tourists) and gouged his eye out. He's currently serving a five-year prison sentence for aggravated assault. I've still got lawyers with subpoenas looking for me regarding that case.

A few weeks ago, another couple of student athletes I covered ran over a teenage cyclist just outside of Friday Harbor and killed him. Police suspect alcohol was involved and charges, likely vehicular homicide, are pending.

In another incident, the two leading scorers of the Friday Harbor boys' basketball team were busted for DUI. They were reinstated to the team without having to serve a suspension because they agreed to attend AA. (In reality, they didn't agree to anything, they were ordered to attend AA by the judge.)

Friday Harbor once came in dead last in the state of Washington for liquor compliance checks. Seventy percent of the businesses in town sold beer to an underaged agent without checking his ID.

These incidents are just a sampling of the worst of the worst. There are countless others I could cite. It's the same story over and over and over. The common thread? Underage drinking. Somebody providing kids with the liquor. Parents not paying attention to what their kids are doing at night.

It's a community that for years has looked the other way — especially for the student athletes — making excuses and enabling the boozing and antisocial behavior.

I've exchanged a few dozen e-mails with friends in the community lately trying to figure out what's going on. One of the theories I've heard is that Friday Harbor is an old fishing village, so hard drinking is just part of its history and culture. Thus, people don't consider this behavior in their children all that unusual.

The old fishermen have pretty much dried up and blown away, so I don't buy that theory. Friday Harbor is now populated mostly by wealthy baby boomers who grew up privileged and spoiled. These people never had boundaries placed on them, and they don't have a clue of how to put boundaries on their own kids. Now they're reaping what they've sowed. That's my four units worth of college psychology pet theory.

I guess the reason I wanted to write about this — at length — is to let people in La Grande know that you've got a pretty good thing going here. I'm not naive enough to say that it's perfect ... there have been a couple of minor scandals involving athletes since I've been here, but whatever problems exist locally pale by comparison with what I saw in Friday Harbor. There's a lot more good to be found here than bad.

I'd say you're lucky in La Grande, but I don't think it's luck. It's kids being taught faith or respect or values, or whatever you want to call it.

I remember a conversation I had with Union cross country coach Steve Sheehy a few weeks ago in which he told me the kids on his teams really gave him hope for the future.

Right now, the town I came from has lost that hope, and its way. Don't let that happen to you, La Grande.

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