In the wake of high school football investigation, northern Minnesota town of Proctor reels

·4 min read

PROCTOR, Minn. - In this small, tight-knit northern Minnesota town bisected by railroad tracks, most everyone has a connection to its schools — and each other. Residents turn out for hockey games, a popular summer festival celebrating the city's rich railroad history and Friday night football under the lights.

But when allegations of student misconduct involving the school's football team surfaced last week, the typically chatty town of 3,000 locked down, many residents afraid to speak publicly about their fears and worries. School employees and students were told to stay silent, the school board banished public comment about the situation at a meeting this week and district officials and local police remain mum about even the most basic investigative details, amid the cancellation of the entire football season.

It is the second serious allegation involving Proctor schools within five weeks.

In late August, Todd R. Clark, the former high school basketball coach and a middle school teacher, was charged with first- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct for sexually assaulting one of his 15-year-old female students. A criminal complaint documents a potential suicide attempt shortly after his police interview. For locals it was reminiscent of a decade ago, when a Proctor math teacher died by suicide as he was investigated for alleged sexual misconduct.

"It makes me uncomfortable knowing my siblings are in that school," said 2016 Proctor graduate Stephen Carlsness, because he sees a culture that appears to ignore behavior that ranges from inappropriate to criminal.

"And nothing is being done," he said.

With minor children involved in an ongoing investigation, it's understandable some things can't be shared, said Amanda Fitzsimmons, mom to three students in Proctor schools. But that's led to rampant rumors, and the school district isn't doing anything to reassure parents that their kids are safe at school with their classmates, coaches and teachers, she said.

"The rumors are serious enough that the school should be able to tell us [at least] that they are safe," she said. "We just had a teacher charged with criminal sexual conduct. I think we deserve more than 'misconduct took place in our school.' I think it would calm rumors if they said … people will be held accountable."

In a vacuum of verified information, the town reels and wonders: How many students were involved? Are they still attending class? When did the coach know, and how did he handle it? Are children safe in Proctor schools?

Wild rumors swirl through social media, frightening community members and enraging people throughout the state. A small crowd gathered outside the school earlier this week, one person with a sign that read "We must protect our kids." Superintendent John Engelking announced the cancellation of the remainder of the football season Wednesday to give the investigation its "due diligence." His statement acknowledged "alleged serious misconduct" and said substantiated misconduct within the football program would be addressed.

'All they have'

Todd Becker's son plays on the Proctor football team. Becker is saddened and shocked by the allegations, he said, which don't mesh with the culture he's experienced as a parent of a player.

Ending the season is "devastating" for team members not involved in the incident, especially after the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"For some of these kids, this is all they have," he said.

Proctor student Lilly Rich said she would have been disappointed had the district not canceled the season.

"I think it sends the right message," she said, noting that many students don't agree with the broad punishment.

But the combination of scandals in such a short time is "stressful" for students, back in school daily for the first time in more than a year, she said.

"We're hearing about it all the time, in hallways, at lunch, in classrooms," Rich said. "Everyone at school has been really down."

Frustrated by the social media melee, a football player posted on his public Facebook page last week that he is "embarrassed to wear anything that represents the team that I have been proud to be with since I first started."

"The entire team is embarrassed right now and we're all just trying to get through this tough time," he wrote. "We have members of the community and friends who have supported us for years making stuff up and talking bad about everyone on the team, when most of us didn't know about it/have anything to do with it."

The Proctor Police Department has said the investigation would likely not conclude this week, continuing to leave residents with questions.

Dick Kari, a Proctor graduate who has owned the Powerhouse bar in town for more than two decades, was chatting with customers perched at the popular tavern's expanse of bar recently. He said the allegations related to both the football program and the charged teacher "reflect poorly on the town."

"You know people here," he said. "When something like this happens, you wonder why? How?"

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450

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