No Justice for Alleged Hazing Victims; No Consequences for Alleged Assailants

Warning: This story deals with graphic, disturbing details that may be inappropriate for younger readers.


Imagine: You’re an invited guest on a high school campus. As you head for your car, you’re jumped from behind by a group of teenage boys. They drag you into an empty school corridor where you’re thrown to the ground. You’re flipped onto your stomach, spread-eagle, and pinned down by several of the boys as one student rams a PVC pipe between your buttocks, toward your anus. All the while, even as you cry to be let up, the boys who’ve pinned you down laugh. They yell at the boy with the PVC pipe to do it harder.

Would you report this attack to law enforcement? Would you expect the District Attorney to pursue criminal charges? Should it matter whether the victim was an adult on school grounds, or a 15-year-old boy?

The violent incident described above is just one example of assaults alleged to have taken place at West Valley High School during the 2019-2020 school year, and into 2021. It’s unknown whether similar alleged acts happened in previous years, or if they continue. The alleged assailants were varsity football players performing football initiation rituals upon younger players transitioning into more coveted varsity football positions.

Despite the younger players’ graphic allegations of sexual violence and ritualistic hazing, the Shasta County District attorney has declined to pursue the case. In fact, nobody from the District Attorney’s office interviewed the alleged victims.

Two of the victims’ mothers contacted A News Cafe in hopes that an investigation into these alleged crimes would reveal details that would convince the district attorney to take this case. A News Cafe’s repeated calls for comment from the district attorney’s office were not returned.

Photo source: Mighty Mites Pop Warner video screen grab.

‘Joel’ tells his story

Today we begin with one boy’s story. Rather than refer to this teenager as “John Doe” – which is how he’s identified in court papers – we’ll call him Joel, which is not his real name, but it’s a name he selected for this story.

Brown-haired, brown-eyed Joel started playing football when he was a stocky 6-year-old. In football, Joel had found his sport. Plus, his father loved football, too. Joel’s earliest football memories were happy ones. By third grade he was playing football with his best friends in his former hometown of Cottonwood, California, a mostly-conservative rural place, population approximately 3,250.

About Cottonwood

Cottonwood is a close-knit town that features lighted Christmas parades, Easter egg hunts and car shows; a place where kids often trick-or-treat from the back of pickups lined with hay bales, because the houses are so far apart. Cottonwood is renowned for its wide, open ranchlands and sweeping, stunning sunsets.

Cottonwood image by Cottonwood artist Erin Friedman.

Many Cottonwood residents embrace a country-living existance where it’s common for people to grow their own food, and raise everything from cattle, pigs and goats, to chickens, sheep and horses.

During the last two years of social unrest related to COVID-19, Cottonwood gained national attention for its annual Mother’s Day Cottonwood Rodeo, and the Cottonwood Militia, led by Red, White and Blueprint devotee Woody Clendenen, whose Cottonwood Barber Shop sometimes displays a Confederate flag.

Confederate flag on display outside of Woody Clendenen’s barber shop

Cottonwood is also the home of West Valley High School, a jewel in the town’s crown, where many generations of Cottonwood fathers, sons, uncles and nephews played football at West Valley. To this day, many home-game spectators include not just current students and their families, but also former teachers, parents, students, football players and cheerleaders.

Less than 900 students attend West Valley High School, located on Happy Valley Road in Cottonwood. An American eagle is the school’s mascot, depicted in a painted mural on one of the school’s buildings where it swoops down, wings wide.

The first time

Joel was a chubby 15-year-old the first time he was allegedly brutalized by some older West Valley High School football players. Joel understood it was part of an initiation to mark his ascension to West Valley High School’s varsity football team.

The alleged attack, which included the use of a weapon called a “PIYA” stick, was part of West Valley High School’s ritualistic secret among the varsity football players; a terrifying rite of passage from one football captain to another. However, the PIYA stick was allegedly administered to not just mark younger boys’ transition from junior varsity football to varsity. The PIYA stick was also alleged to be brandished to commemorate special occasions, like birthdays, or at random times with no stated reason.

The PIYA stick is made of a PVC pipe with a blunt end on one side, and a tennis ball taped to the other side. The PIYA stick is between 2- to 3-feet long, and approximately 3/4 of an inch in diameter.

Before starting football at West Valley, Joel recalled when his older cousin, a former West Valley football player, told about the time when the entire team was punished by running extra laps after former coach Greg Grandell heard about a PIYA-stick assault. That was at least a year before Joel started West Valley High School. This is a crucial piece of evidence because Coach Grandell has claimed ignorance of the PIYA incidents that took place in the varsity football locker room. Grandell’s explanation for the football-player-upon-football-player sexually violent acts and hazing is that he was clueless about what his players did in secret. The victims disagree.

Joel said he was caught off guard the first time he was allegedly jumped by a group of varsity players. He alleges that the varsity players threw Joel to the varsity locker-room floor and flipped him onto his stomach. He alleges that while multiple boys held Joel down, one varsity player rammed the PVC pipe through Joel’s clothes, between his buttock cheeks.

PIYA’s creators

As A News Cafe reported in March 15, 2021, former West Valley coach Jim Vert took credit — along with his fellow former coach Grandell — for introducing PIYA traditions and rituals to the 4-year high school’s football program more than 20 years ago.

In a 2020 Facebook post that’s since been deleted, Vert defended PIYA. He said although he and all West Valley players – past and present – were sworn to a lifetime of secrecy about PIYA’s meaning, Vert insisted that PIYA meant nothing “heinous.”

Rather, Vert said that the word “PIYA!” has been exclaimed at everything from football games and graduations, to funerals and weddings. “PIYA” is even engraved upon a former West Valley student’s headstone, following his death in a car crash.

It’s unknown exactly who created the PIYA stick fashioned from a PVC pipe. It’s unknown why or when the PIYA-stick custom began. However, it was allegedly common knowledge among the West Valley football players that upon graduation, the outgoing varsity captain would pass down the PIYA stick to the incoming football captain with the expectation that the new captain was empowered to wield the stick as he pleased.

Also, Joel alleges that along with the hand-over of the PIYA stick came the expectation that the PIYA-stick tradition, and other forms of systemic demoralizing bullying, hazing and violence, would be carried out by West Valley High School varsity players upon younger players.

Penetration’s legal definition: ‘no matter how slight’

Now, nearly a year-and-a-half later, when Joel talks about that particular alleged assault, and the many alleged assaults that he and other players say they suffered during their time at West Valley High, he said that the only thing that kept the PIYA stick from penetrating any deeper was that Joel used all his physical might and strength to clench his buttocks to block further entrance of the PIYA stick.

California Penal Code 289 addresses sexual penetration by foreign object with force, fear, or threats. Sexual penetration means penetration of the genitals or anus of another person, or to cause another person to penetrate the defendant’s genitals or anus, or, to cause another person to penetrate his or her own genitals or anus, for the purpose of sexual gratification, or sexual abuse (when the purpose is pain or injury).

This next part is key: Any penetration, even slight or brief, even through clothing, is sufficient to meet the legal definition of sexual penetration.

The PIYA stick fits the legal definition of an instrument used for penetration. It was a foreign object rammed between the victim’s buttock cheeks, through the use of force. The incidents were unwanted, and caused fear. All those components and more satisfy Penal Code 289’s definition of sexual penetration. Even so, no charges were ever brought against the assailants.

After the West Valley assaults

Since Joel’s departure from West Valley, he has lost more than 50 pounds from what he admitted was self-imposed starvation. He’s been diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression. He tries to not think about what happened inside the West Valley varsity locker room, but said that when he does, the sounds that took place during his attacks are now “a blur”. However, Joel vividly recalls what he heard during assaults upon other PIYA-stick victims.

“Other people were laughing, like, ‘get ‘em’ type stuff. The dude’s screaming and yelling to ‘get off’,” Joel said. “And then the sounds of the guys who are doing it, laughing and saying, ‘It’ll be easier — just let it happen’.”

The boys let it happen. But it was never easier. In fact, each recurring assault caused the victims to feel even greater fear, to the point where they dreaded when their turn rolled around again to be “PIYA’d”.

Joel alleges that another aspect of the PIYA traditions, and other violent acts, such as being forced to submit to older players’ on-the-spot boxing challenges, was the understanding that what happened in the locker room, stayed in the locker room. Much like the closely held secret about PIYA’s meaning,  what happened in the varsity locker room was to remain a secret, too.

“The captains did it to people, but some people watched, or would help hold someone down,” Joel said. “Everybody got it when they moved up, or on their birthday. Players didn’t intervene because it would happen to them, too, or would start a problem. It seems people were embarrassed, or felt like Grandell didn’t care.”

Team ‘bitches’ get it worse

Joel noted a double standard, in that some football captains could opt out of receiving the PIYA stick treatment on their birthdays.

However, according to Joel, the alleged assaults were something the younger boys experienced, expected, endured and feared.

Expected or not, Joel said that sometimes the mental stress from the anticipation was almost as torturous as the physical assaults.

“Sometimes it would come out of nowhere,” Joel said. “Sometimes you’d get a heads up like, ‘Something’s going to happen to somebody’. And sometimes it was like, you just get tackled from behind. For me, there was really no hope. I was very small, overweight – extremely – and I was late to puberty. So when I was on the team, I was getting harassed by grown dudes. And so there was really no hope for me, with my size and stuff.”

That’s why Joel wasn’t entirely surprised when the older boys tagged him as their “bitch”, a distinction Joel alleged ensured even harsher treatment.

“It happened when I got moved up,” Joel said. “They choose the fattest, the most baby guy on the team to do it to. I saw it happen to someone. I actually saw him getting chased down before that Friday game during Thursday practice. They even grabbed his name tag, and when the season was over they put it on my locker and they’re like, ‘This is you now,’ and they would talk to me about it three or four times a week, just saying what’s going to happen to me and stuff.”

One threat, which Joel had seen administered to the last “bitch”, involved not just chasing down the victim and pinning him to the ground, but one of the older boys exposed his own genitals, squatted down and rubbed his bare testicles upon the boy’s face, an act the boys called “tea bagging”.

But before he was tea-bagged, Joel alleges that the older players demonstrated something special in store for him as they veered from the usual PIYA assault-position, where the victim was stomach-down, butt-up, spread-eagled for the PIYA ritual.

For Joel, as the team’s designated “bitch”, he alleges that multiple players jumped him and threw him to the varsity locker-room floor onto his back. He alleges that his assailants grabbed his legs and pulled them up and over his head; knees by his ears, his buttocks pointed up high. That gave the assailants more targeted access.

“If you were to fight it, they would do it harder,” Joel said.

Hopeless; no way out

As time went on, and as Joel alleges he saw and was subjected to more assaults, he began to dread going to school and playing football, a game he’d loved since he was a little kid. He felt disgusted by what was happening. He felt trapped.

“There was no hope,” he said from his new home, far from Cottonwood. “I kept thinking, ‘When will this end?’ “

The closest Joel came to hinting to his parents what was happening at school in the months leading up to his departure from West Valley was when he told his parents that he didn’t get along with the older players.

It’s not that Joel didn’t want to tell his parents, because he did. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it, for many reasons.

He feared that telling what happened to him at West Valley High School at the hands of older football players would trigger a chain reaction of unwanted events. First, he feared that telling the truth would guarantee that he’d no longer be a high school football player. Second, he feared that if he told the truth, he and his family would become outcasts in Cottonwood; unwelcome in the only community he’d ever known. Third, he feared that if he told the truth, it would end his dream to graduate as a football captain, and wishful opportunities after graduation to play college football.

But more than all those fears, the biggest reason Joel withheld the truth from his parents about what happened to him at West Valley High School was out of a desire to protect his family, and their small-town, rural way of life.

“I know my dad is extremely attached to the town – or was extremely attached to the town,” Joel said. “Football’s always been a huge thing in my life, and my dad’s. And then, I don’t know, I felt like my mom mentally couldn’t handle it.”

Even so, in the fall of 2020 Joel and the other boys finally admitted to their parents what had happened to them, and others.

Joel’s worst fears came to pass. His mother removed him from West Valley High School after Joel’s parents learned of the allegations, days after the coaches were informed.

“He went and got his stuff out of the locker, and that was it,” Joel’s mother recalled. “The school was more concerned about – instead of doing anything to help the boys, who were still at the school – they were more concerned about losing their jobs.”

At that point, there was no un-ringing the clanging bell that sounded the alarm about the West Valley High School hazing allegations. The story blew up. People chose sides. The West Valley football players who claimed they were victims of the alleged assaults were scorned, taunted, shunned, bullied and humiliated.

Hundreds of people in Cottonwood and at West Valley High School defended the coaches. The few people who did stand up for the alleged victims did so quietly.

Upcoming civil case

The boys’ parents secured legal representation. Graphic details of alleged West Valley High School football hazing incidents were described in a comprehensive complaint filed in Shasta County Superior Court, May 2021, on behalf of four former West Valley High School football players.

Those West Valley boys are currently represented by Redding law firm Barr and Mudford in a civil lawsuit that’s expected to take place this fall. (Note: Barr and Mudford is a longtime A News Cafe advertiser.)

Joel is one of five John Doe’s in the civil lawsuit. One John Doe was a former football player from a previous year whose recollections about West Valley hazing were nearly identical to Joel’s and the other boys’.

Goodbye, West Valley High School; Goodbye Cottonwood

Had Joel remained at West Valley High School, right about now he’d be finishing his senior year. Had Joel remained at West Valley High School, he would graduate in a few months. He would hear the strains of the Pomp and Circumstance processional. He would wear a red-and-gold cap and gown in the school’s colors. He would accept his diploma to the enthusiastic cheers of his proud family. He would look forward to perhaps having his name engraved upon a plaque of honor outside the gym. He would relish his dreams of a bright future and college football.

Instead, Joel’s entire family left Cottonwood in his junior year after it seemed the community had circled protective wagons around the coaches and alleged assailants. Many people at the school and in the community blamed the alleged victims for bringing negative attention to their beloved high school, their community and their champion football team.

Now, none of the John Doe’s attend West Valley High School. They left after it was apparent that the majority of their Cottonwood acquaintances — students, teachers, administrators, parents and even former best friends – had turned their backs on the boys and their families. It wasn’t just the boys who were ostracized; their parents also became social pariahs as other parents they’d known since their boys were children — people with whom they’d shared bleachers, potlucks and barbecues — wanted nothing to do with them.

Far from Cottonwood

Joel shared all these details and more from his Southern California room that has nature posters tacked to the walls and ceiling. He wore a sweatshirt and a stocking cap. When asked how many friends he’d lost since the hazing allegations became public, he replied, “Like, the entire school.”

What would Joel like people to know about what happened to him and other boys at West Valley High School?

“The truth,” Joel said. “But it’s been twisted against the victims.”

Joel has thought a lot about about why more boys didn’t disclose the alleged abuse, and why the community turned against the alleged victims and their families.

“It’s because they’re scared,” Joel said. “It’s like they know nothing except the small town, like an everybody-knows-everything type thing. They are scared of being involved. They’d rather act like they know nothing. And so that’s why a lot of the guys on the team haven’t said anything, either. There’s other guys on the team that are my age that just said it didn’t happen, when I saw it happen to them. I don’t get why. I don’t understand.”

He acknowledged that many of the boys who didn’t talk about the alleged hazings are still West Valley students whose families still reside in Cottonwood, going about their lives as if nothing happened. It bothers Joel that the alleged assailants have suffered zero consequences for their alleged acts of violent hazing, while the alleged victims suffer from ongoing mental despair over so much loss, abuse and betrayal.

But what Joel especially cannot fathom is why the Shasta County District Attorney refused to interview him and the other alleged victims. He cannot understand why the district attorney’s office didn’t think the West Valley High School case was worth pursuing.

Joel remembers when the story first broke, and how his parents said he’d done the right thing — the brave thing — when he told the truth about what happened at West Valley High School. He remembers how his mother told him that in the end, if he told the truth, justice would prevail.

Now, he’s not so sure.

Starting over, looking forward

Joel knows what he would do if he were in charge of the justice system.

“Well, I would like that the kids that did it to me – especially the ones that were extremely abusive and over the top – that they’d be held accountable for what they did,” he said.

“I don’t even know what to do for Grandell; probably that he gets locked up, honestly, because of what he’s done.”

Joel said that although he tries not to dwell upon what happened at West Valley, when the memories do bubble up, he sometimes goes to “a dark place” – a place he’d rather not talk about.

Now, Joel is no longer the short, chubby West Valley High School freshman, but a slender, 6-foot-tall 17-year-old. He finished continuation school in Southern California rather than attend an in-person school fraught with “high school drama”. He tries to stay positive. He works to stay focused on the future, and his ultimate goal of becoming an EMT and firefighter.

Meanwhile, last summer, an exuberant graduation party was held in Anderson River Park to celebrate West Valley High School’s varsity players; untroubled young men who anticipate promising futures and maybe college football. Some former West Valley coaches – all of whom resigned after the alleged hazing stories were made public – joined the gathering. They offered admiration, approval and accolades. Former coach Grandell was there, too, captured in the group photo, front and center in a white T-shirt, down on one knee with his arm around one of his former football players.

The special moment was widely shared on social media for all to see. The celebration included cake, of course. It was also photographed.

One four-letter word, written in bold, gold icing upon the sheet cake, was the most prominent. PIYA!

If you appreciate journalist Doni Chamberlain’s reporting and commentary, please consider a contribution or subscription to A News Cafe. Thank you! 

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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