Dismissing allegations of hazing and sexual assault by Clover High School football players as mere "horseplay," authorities on Thursday said they found no evidence of a crime and no charges will be filed against any players.
The officials - including York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett and Clover schools Superintendent Marc Sosne - said stories of players sexually assaulting a teammate with a broomstick were wildly inflated rumors.
But Brackett said players did grab a student and "maybe spanked him on the butt."
Then, Detective Russ Yeager said, a player approached the alleged victim with a broom in hand. The student wasn't verbally threatened or touched with the broom, Yeager said.
Sosne later said the broom belonged to the school and was in the locker room before students arrived there.
Brackett, whose office prosecutes crimes in York County, said he doesn't believe a crime was committed.
"We're talking about a group of 17-year-old boys here in a locker room," he said. "Nobody got hurt. Nobody intended to hurt anybody. You can't hold somebody liable for what maybe they could've done. You have to hold them liable for what they actually did.
"There was no crime here."
The officials spoke to reporters during a Thursday news conference intended to bring an end to the sheriff's month-long investigation into allegations of three separate instances of hazing and a sexual assault on Sept. 19 in the varsity boys' football locker room.
The other incidents occurred on Sept. 1 and Sept. 30 in the same locker room. In those, Lt. Mike Baker said, underclassmen were "grabbed up and brought to the shower area."
"They tussled, but there was no striking or beating," Baker said.
All three incidents happened near the end of the school day when players were unsupervised and preparing for practice.
The allegations have plagued the school district since early October, when Clover High leaders said they first heard students talk about football players hazing teammates.
School officials moved swiftly, suspending 13 players from school and kicking 10 off the team. They asked the sheriff's office to investigate whether any of the incidents were criminal.
Sosne's office launched a separate probe.
While none of the three victims reported the incidents, sheriff's reports say when investigators interviewed the teens, they confirmed they were "assaulted by elder members of the football team."
Days later, Clover High football coach John Devine said the hazing was "bigger than we originally had thought."
School officials have said upperclassmen told them hazing had gone on for years at Clover High, but no former coaches or past players have acknowledged any hazing.
Of the 13 suspended players, 10 were involved in the incidents, Devine said last month, and three were suspended for not reporting what they saw.
The school canceled the junior varsity football season after several of those players were called up to fill the varsity team's depleted roster.
Authorities spent the rest of October - National Anti-Bullying Month - investigating.
'A renegade rumor'
Two detectives worked "day in and day out trying to get to the bottom of what actually transpired at Clover High School," Bryant said. "When we concluded our investigation, it was nothing like the rumor mill that was going around in the school.
"It was absolutely interrogation after interrogation, statement after statement, talking to these kids, trying to get to the truth."
Investigators turned all evidence over to Brackett to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.
Brackett called the sexual assault allegations "a renegade rumor that was running up and down the halls, wreaking havoc on the truth."
He then questioned the Sept. 19 victim's credibility.
"After speaking to everybody that was there, the only person who maintains that anything happened is the victim," Brackett said. "His story has changed over time. It's inconsistent from one telling to the next. And his credibility is diminished because of that."
Witnesses the victim said would support his account actually contradicted it, Brackett said.
Brackett said he also doubts the 17-year-old's story because the teen canceled follow-up interviews with detectives. When asked about it at school, Brackett said, the teen told an investigator that his lawyer advised him not to talk.
"I can't help but consider that as well," he said. "He's retained counsel for a civil action, potentially against the school district. That affects somebody's credibility, because there's potentially a monetary reward for it down the road for him."
The victim's mother couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.
She previously told The Herald that her 11th-grade son told police he was held down by older football players who threatened to sexually assault him with a broomstick.
"A line has been crossed here; this was not any hazing or initiation," she said last month. "My son was threatened."
Since returning to school, she said, her son continues to be antagonized.
Bryant and Brackett empathized with the football players.
"Seventeen-year-old boys, that's what we're dealing with here," Brackett said. "I can't divorce myself, when I'm assessing a case like this, from the fact that I was 16, 17 years old one time, too. I know how 16- and 17-year-old boys act."
"We've all played these games as kids," Bryant said. "You have King of the Hill or Pile On or whatever."
Bryant said before the Sept. 19 incident, the victim had antagonized players "in good fun" by "teasing" and "poking fun." The victim allegedly joked about the incident after it happened, Bryant said.
'Your children are safe'
Since the investigation started, three seniors, who played a larger role in the incidents, are finishing their year in an "alternative" setting, Sosne said.
The other 10 students have returned to school. Of those, three have been given a chance to ask Devine to rejoin the team.
Sosne, who called what happened "unacceptable" behavior, said he has urged the Clover High staff to be "more vigilant" in watching the 1,900 students' behavior.
"We expect our staff to monitor behavior," he said. "At the same time, we entrust our students to abide by rules and act as responsible young adults."
At the news conference, Sosne spoke directly to families:
"Parents, your children are safe. Students, you are safe."