DIETRICH • Dietrich School District administrators and football coaches have denied allegations made in a civil lawsuit that they knew about months of racial harassment and physical abuse of a black, mentally disabled student.

And the defendants in the lawsuit say the district’s superintendent handled rape allegations properly from the moment he was made aware the day after the alleged attack.

The civil lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court, alleges that school administrators and football coaches “were aware of or should have been aware of numerous incidents in which the plaintiff was subject to severe and pervasive harassment, racial discrimination, mental and physical assault and battery culminating in a vicious anal rape of the plaintiff by several white male students.”

But in their formal answer to the civil suit filed Thursday, lawyers for the school district said the plaintiff, who’s also the alleged victim in a criminal rape case against several football players, never made a complaint about abuse until Oct. 23, the day after the alleged sexual assault.

“The district had policies enabling and encouraging students and their parents to report instances of bullying, harassment, abuse, hazing, etc., thereby creating an effective mechanism to stop such misconduct,” the answer said. “Until Oct. 23, 2015, neither plaintiff nor his family submitted any such complaint to any member of the district; and thereby failed to provide notice to the district that the alleged misconduct had occurred or was occurring, thereby depriving defendants of an opportunity to stop or prevent such misconduct.”

Shelley McDaniel, the mother of the plaintiff, said Friday she did report to football coaches and the district superintendent that her son was being bullied. But she said much of the abuse was even hidden from her because of the “bro code” on the football team — players weren’t supposed to speak about what happened between them.

Superintendent Ben Hardcastle took “immediate and necessary steps” to investigate the claims, report the incident to law enforcement and recommend the expulsion of two students and the suspension of a third as soon as he learned of the alleged sexual assault.

Those students now face criminal charges. The two students who were expelled are John R.K. Howard, 18, of Keller, Texas, and Tanner Ray Ward, 17, of Richfield, who are both charged as adults with felony forcible penetration with a foreign object. The student who was suspended is charged as a juvenile, and all records pertaining to his case are sealed.

Those named as defendants in the civil lawsuit are the school district, Hardcastle, Principal Stephanie Shaw, district board members Starr Olson, Brad Dotson, Benjamin Hoskisson, Kris Hubert and Perry Van Tassell, and football coaches Mike Torgensen, Bret Peterson, Rick Astle and Wayne Dill.

The defendants are represented by the law firm Anderson, Julian & Hull, which according to its website specializes in education law, professional liability claims and civil rights.

Hardcastle and an attorney for the defendants did not immediately return a call seeking comment Friday. But in the formal answer filed Thursday, the defendants and their lawyers defended their actions and said they believed the victim was “well liked.”

“Defendants reassert that they neither knew nor had reason to know of any alleged harassment or bullying,” the answer said. “To the contrary, to defendants’ knowledge plaintiff was well liked by the rest of his teammates on the high school football team, had many friends on the team and was treated well by them.”

While the school district, administrators and football coaches denied almost all allegations in the lawsuit, they did make two admissions: that the defendants knew the victim received a “wedgie” that tore his underwear prior to practice the day of the alleged sexual assault, and that the defendants knew about an incident in which the black teen was depicted sitting in the back of a bus in a classroom chalkboard drawing.

But, they said, the student who made the drawing did not understand why it would be considered derogatory.

“Defendants add that the student (who drew the picture) was not a member of the football team,” the lawyers wrote in their answer. “When questioned, the student stated he was not aware of the pejorative nature of the drawing, and when counseled by the superintendent, apologized.”

The defendants said the student who drew the picture is “a good friend” of the victim, and that before and after the drawing, the victim has stayed the night at the other student’s home.

But Shelley McDaniel said Friday the student should have known and did know the derogatory nature of drawing a black person in the back of a bus because the student’s father is the school’s history teacher.

Aside from those two admissions, the defendants denied all other allegations. The denials include:

  • That the “humiliating mental abuse and brutal physical violence suffered” by the victim was “clearly apparent, obviously foreseeable and entirely preventable” and that the defendants “ignored or neglected their clear duty with deliberate indifference.”
  • That the plaintiff “suffered through numerous incidents of racially motivated physical and mental abuse, racial harassment and humiliation and outright deprivations of his constitutional right to due process and equal protection of law at the hands of students and employees of the district … (who) knew or should have known and did nothing to prevent or deter.”
  • That the defendants knew the plaintiff was “particularly vulnerable to bullying and harassment and was essentially helpless and incapable of defending himself.” In their answer, the defendants argued “a disability does not necessarily indicate vulnerability or helplessness — and in plaintiff’s case, defendants were not aware of such vulnerability or helplessness.”
  • That the defendants “deliberately or negligently placed the plaintiff in danger by acting with deliberate indifference to a known and obvious danger.”
  • That the plaintiff was taunted and called racist names in the presence of school officials.
  • That John Howard knocked the plaintiff unconscious while encircled by football players and coaches at a preseason camp. The defendants answered that allegation by saying it was Howard who “received a head injury during scrimmage drills” and was taken to the hospital, and that the plaintiff was not injured during the camp.

As for the allegations that the victim was sexually assaulted, the defendants answered that they learned about the alleged attack after the fact.

“Defendants admit only that on Oct. 22, 2015, an incident occurred in the locker room where Tanner Ward and John Howard were involved in activities which may have resulted in a physical altercation involving the plaintiff,” the answer said. “As none of the defendants were present at the time of the alleged activities, the above statement is based upon information obtained by defendants after the alleged incident.”

The district administrators denied some allegations with the caveat that they didn’t know enough to answer the allegations, like whether John R.K. Howard transferred to Dietrich because of behavioral problems in Texas.

The defendants used that same caveat when they denied that the victim was subjected to “aggressive humping” and “simulating anal sex” during football practices.

One of the attorneys for the McDaniel family, Lee Schlender, said Friday he hadn’t yet seen the answer from the defendants and therefor had no response. But Shelley McDaniel called the denials “typical of Mr. Hardcastle” and typical of a town where people “see something and just turn their head and walk away.”

And while her son’s civil lawsuit against the district and administrators seeks $10 million or more in damages, Shelley McDaniel said she’d simply be happy with stoking change in the small town.

“If we can get them to change these policies and the way they handled this whole situation, that would be a win as far as I’m concerned,” McDaniel said Friday. “Because it’s got to stop. Somebody needs to learn a lesson from this.”

No hearings in the civil case had been scheduled as of Friday. In the criminal case, a preliminary hearing for Howard scheduled for Friday was delayed at the request of the attorney general’s office. It was rescheduled for July 29.

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