It's a disturbing game with devastating consequences, and a new WTHR survey suggests it is rampant in Indiana schools.
"Ball tapping" is the act of intentionally hitting or kicking a male in the genitals. Earlier this month, an Eyewitness News investigationshowed the game has become commonplace in some area schools, resulting in serious injuries for students.
As part of the investigation, WTHR also conducted a statewide survey of school nurses. The results are in, and they show the problem of ball tapping is more common and widespread than many school officials had realized.
School nurses from 163 Indiana schools participated in the anonymous survey, and 33% of those nurses said they're aware of ball tapping happening at their school within the past twelve months.
But a closer look at the statistics shows the problem is much more serious in some schools than in others.
23% of school nurses who work at the elementary level say they've seen or heard of ball tapping at their school. That number nearly doubles in high schools, where 43% of school nurses say they've seen it.
And in middle schools, 62% of school nurses said they're aware of students engaged in ball tapping.
"I would have expected it to be a low number," said Mary Conway, president of the Indiana Association of School Nurses. "I would not have expected [school nurses] to have had much experience with it at all … because I think it's something most kids won't talk about with a nurse. I'm very surprised by this whole issue and it's given me a new perspective."
Among the 72 middle school and high school nurses who participated in WTHR's survey, 50% said they had seen students who came to the school clinic seeking assistance related to an incident of ball tapping. Half of those nurses also reported they had observed the problem several (more than two) times each school year, and about 10% said it happens at their school on a daily or weekly basis.
Some nurses offered comments with their survey responses. A sample of those comments provides insight into what those nurses are dealing with:
- "This is not a new situation. It has popped up periodically in our school system from year to year. Students seem to think it is "funny" or "harmless". We have gone to a great length to educate our students (esp. middle school aged students) that this is not acceptable conduct and that it can result in horrible injury. It seems to be a middle grade mentality type of thing. We have issues with both boys "tapping" other boys, and girls "tapping" boys because it gives an immediate reaction."
- "I have had on occasion had a student come in complaining of pain in that area, and never a reasonable explanation of why he hurts in that area. I am better informed to possibly identify that this is taking place."
- "I have seen it done both maliciously and just as guys goofing around. I heard from one student that he had to have one testicle surgically removed after being kicked in his genitals during summer school. Our school may treat this as an assault if a student or family complains that it is done in a malicious manner. It is probably more often overlooked as horseplay."
- "I had a case early this school year of an injured boy, with that type injury, but it was claimed to be accidental & no adults witnessed it. Now, I wonder."
- "We had a local male pediatrician talk to the boys about this last year and we have seen a dramatic decrease in incidence of this behavior since then. He talked specifically about the physical harm that occurs and it was very effective. I would recommend a similar discussion at other schools experiencing this problem."
"Just want to fall and cry"
Jake Arend doesn't need survey results to convince him ball tapping is a serious problem.
Classmates began hitting him in the groin when he was in sixth grade and it continued for years.
"I was just the scrawny kid everybody picked on to make themselves look better," Arend said. "If you get hit in that area, you just want to fall and cry, but I tried not to."
By the time Jake got to Danville High School, he says he was being ball tapped every week – sometimes even three or four times a day.
"Sometimes it would be just the flick of a wrist, and there was one time I actually got hit in the area with a socket wrench," he recalled. "When I got hit with that, I actually just hit the ground and just laid there in the fetal position for five to ten minutes for the pain to go away, then I got up and went to class."
Jake never told his parents and he never told his teachers, fearing the bullies at school would hit him ever harder if they got in trouble.
"I just thought 'It's pain. I'll deal with it,'" said Arend.
When Jake graduated in May 2009, he thought all that pain would be a thing of the past. It was just getting started.
In late October, Jake was rushed to Hendricks Regional Hospital in Danville where doctors performed an emergency operation. Years of enduring ball tapping had finally taken its toll. Undetected scar tissue had completely sealed off Jake's urinary tract, resulting in horrifying pain.
"It was a pain like I've never felt before. It was like taking a knife and just jamming it down in your stomach and dragging it all the way down through your genital area," he said. "The urologist said the signs can go undetected for years until it hits you like it hit me."
Doctors placed a catheter in Jake's urethra and told him he will need another operation to fix all the damage caused by repeated blows to the groin.
For Jake's father, that recent trip to the emergency room was the first time he had ever heard of ball tapping. "I never in a million years would have thought this was happening to him," said Eddie Arend. "Evidently it's happening at a lot of schools. It's not just his school."
School nurses confirm that's true.
"A real wakeup call"
"It's a more serious problem than what I had imagined," Conway said. "I had no idea the kids were that violent with it. Watching your video, I was appalled and the survey is somewhat surprising."
Conway says the Eyewitness News investigation and survey should be "a real wakeup call" to schools and school nurses across Indiana. She says the IASN board of directors will further research the issue because Conway believes more education and awareness is needed for teachers, administrators and school nurses to help protect students. 52% of school nurses who completed the 13 Investigates survey said they had never heard of ball tapping prior to learning of WTHR's investigation.
"I'm surprised nothing has really been said about it," admitted Conway. "I think any issue that impacts health in a permanent way needs to be addressed."
Jake's father says parents must address it, too.
"A lot of times as parents, do we forget to talk to our own children? I guess we do," he said. "There's nothing I wouldn't do to take away his pain. I just never knew it was happening and the sad truth is, [Jake] has to pay the rest of his life for this."
It's a costly and terribly painful lesson Jake wants other students to remember.
"If you're in school right now and you're dealing with it, don't be afraid to say something," Arend said. "Ask teachers, go to counselors, ask the nurses … I wish I told somebody."
For advice about how to talk to your kids about ball tapping, see WTHR's original investigation.
You can see results of WTHR's survey here.