Photo by Steve Carter/Special to the Gila Herald: While most fans were enjoying the Thatcher-Pima high school football game, some youngsters were behaving like bullies.
“They were looking for blood. There was no reason. They didn’t know her. It disturbs me that children so young have so much anger.”
Angela Larson – victim’s mother
by Jon Johnson
Thatcher – The mother of a 13-year-old girl who was brutally assaulted by three female suspects at the Thatcher High School football game on Friday night is searching for answers as she raises awareness of a potential bullying problem in the school district.
The victim suffered a “severe concussion,” according to her mother, Angela Larson, after being beaten by up to three girls at once in an unprovoked attack at the stadium during a Thatcher-Pima football match. Multiple witnesses saw the attack and videos were uploaded and shared on social media platforms, including the Snapchat app.
The Thatcher Police Department has identified the three suspects and they will be referred to juvenile probation on Tuesday, according to Thatcher Police Chief Shaffen Woods, with probable aggravated assault charges pending. With juvenile cases in Graham County, officers inform Juvenile Probation of the situation and it is up to Juvenile Probation to order the arrest of suspects. In this case, possibly due in part to the holiday weekend, Juvenile Probation did not approve the suspects’ detention over the weekend.
“They were able to track down the suspects and get admissions and things like that, for which charges will be filed,” Chief Woods said. “They are (juvenile probation) the ones that made the determination not to stop and just write it down as references and send it to you.”
Juvenile Probation will check the references Tuesday and forward them to the Graham County Prosecutor’s Office for charging if warranted.
Graham County used to house its juveniles at the Eastern Arizona Regional Juvenile Detention Center (EARJDF), however the center closed in 2018 after 18 years of service due to loss of federal contracts and budget concerns. At that time, the county began transporting juvenile offenders to Florence in Pinal County at a cost of $175 per day, not counting transportation costs.
“My daughter was lying in a hospital bed and then at home and she was not able to enjoy her weekend like she usually does because of all of this while these girls are still roaming free,” Larson said.
The videos are disturbing, with one showing the three suspects kicking the victim as she lies on the concrete sidewalk. Another video shows a suspect repeatedly banging the victim’s head against concrete as others look on. In both cases, none of the people watching the aggravated assault intervened to stop it.
“I just hope that as a community we can do better,” Woods said. “Anyone who has seen the videos, there is a little wow factor involved in people being able to act that way and treat people that way. It saddens me that these young children feel that this is appropriate behavior. That is not acceptable and as a community we must do better.”
The victim’s mother questioned why the attack on her daughter was allowed to continue for so long in front of so many witnesses.
“No one stepped in to help her,” Larson said. “No one stepped in to intervene, no one went looking for an adult, no one went looking for one of the (four) police officers at the scene. . . Nothing was done about it.”
“All these people stand there and stand by when nobody helps because people are scared. What has gone wrong with our community and our world? This is a small community. We’re supposed to be Gila Valley Strong.”
Larson responded to the scene and was with her daughter when she became aware of the videos. At that time, she took her daughter to Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center for treatment, and Thatcher police followed her into the hospital.
Larson has started a Justice for AUDI Facebook page, and he talks about bullying and wonders how or why this would happen. She has also shared some of the videos of the assault on her daughter on the page.
“I think she was targeted because of her size and those girls obviously wanted to fight someone that night and they chose her, unfortunately,” Larson said.
He also questions whether the Thatcher school district took enough security precautions so that this type of assault did not occur during a school function.
Thatcher plays her football games at Eastern Arizona College’s John Mickelson Field. According to EAC director of marketing and public relations Kris McBride, the high school “had to hire police and hire additional staff to provide security.”
While Thatcher’s officers were at the game, they were there as a courtesy while they were still on duty in the city and were stationed on the north side in case they had to answer any calls in the city, according to Chief Woods. While the Thatcher School District inquired about having additional officials at the game, it did not contract with the department for any officials, and Woods said he informed the school that they would be there out of courtesy whenever possible.
“They (Thatcher School District) always ask us to provide security and if we have (the) staff available, we absolutely will,” Chief Woods said. “Our jurisdiction is in the city (town), so that’s why we always tell them ‘Look, if we’re going to be there we’re going to help if we can, but if we have calls in the city we’re going to go out and take care of our responsibilities.”
Thatcher officers are often hired by the EAC for university events, and the university also has its own police force. However, no Thatcher officers were hired as security for the high school game and there were also no EACPD officers on the scene, according to Chief Woods. Once a Thatcher officer was informed of the assault, the department took the call and investigated the case, ending with the suspects being referred to Juvenile Probation.
Larson also questioned why an ambulance was not immediately called for her daughter at the scene. She said that she was there with the police and her daughter when she became aware of the videos of her and immediately took her to the hospital after seeing them.
Chief Woods said an officer on scene reported seeing no injuries on the victim and the victim was on Snapchat. Woods said officers also didn’t see the videos of the beaten victim until his mother was present and they weren’t aware of the possible seriousness of the assault.
“There did not appear to be a need for medical attention, which is why an ambulance was not called at that time.”
Larson said officers were not the ones to determine the severity of any potential injuries and EMS should have been contacted immediately. She also said the officer did not ask if her daughter was injured.
“No one asked if she needed medical attention,” Larson said. “Nobody asked her if she was hurt. No one asked her if she needed anything. So, she ended up having a severe concussion. She has to go through this and she is not fair.”
Larson said bullying is a problem throughout the Gila Valley, not just in the Thatcher School District.
“I think this happens at various schools all the time,” Larson said. “And I think because the children are afraid that they will be retaliated against or are afraid to say something, especially when it comes to these girls (the suspects). The reason why I am expressing my opinion about Audi and want justice for her is that her children should not be afraid. And you as a parent should not be afraid to stand up for your child and be afraid of retaliation and what will happen to your child when she sends him to school. You have to be the voice of your daughter and I will be her voice until the end until she feels that she gets justice for herself because she has to go through this.”
“When will it be enough? There may not be a next time a parent is lucky enough to walk out of the hospital with her child and take her home for overnight monitoring. Next time, a parent may be sitting at their child’s bedside in a hospital somewhere else, deciding whether or not they want their child to be an organ donor, or taking their child off life support due to brain damage, due to extensive injuries.
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