DIETRICH • The rape of a black, mentally disabled Dietrich High School football player inside a school locker room in October was the culmination of months of racial, physical, emotional and psychological abuse ignored by school officials, alleges a civil lawsuit filed against the district.
The suit claims football coaches and school administrators “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.” The claim was filed in United States District Court earlier this month by attorney Keith Roark on behalf of the teenager. It seeks $10 million.
“Our position obviously is that this could have been, and should have been, anticipated,” Roark told the Times-News Wednesday. “All school districts are under state mandate to monitor for bullying and to take steps to educate students. There were clear signals this man was abused, bullied and taken advantage of.”
It names Dietrich School Principal Stephanie Shaw, Superintendent Ben Hardcastle, 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.
It also lists 10 individuals “whose true and correct identities are not yet known to the plaintiff,” but whose names will be added to the suit later.
Hardcastle did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday and school athletic director Traci Perron, who was not named in the suit, did not return a phone message either.
A lawyer for the school administrators filed a document Wednesday acknowledging receipt of the civil suit. The defendants and their lawyers now have 30 days to answer the complaint and either admit or deny the allegations contained in the suit.
Criminal charges were filed in March by the state attorney general’s office against three teenagers over an Oct. 22 incident in which investigators say the attackers jammed a coat hanger into the boy’s rectum. The civil lawsuit says the abuse went on for months and included other attacks.
John R.K. Howard, 18, of Keller, Texas, and Tanner Ward, 17, of Richfield are both charged as adults with felony counts of forcible penetration by use of a foreign object. The third teen is charged as a juvenile with a lesser crime.
Ward’s criminal case was bound over to district court last month and he pleaded not guilty Monday during a district court arraignment. Howard, who is finishing high school in Texas, is set for a preliminary hearing June 10.
The lawsuit says the victim of the rape endured “racial bullying, racial name-calling, racial taunting, racial harassment and humiliation and at least one physical beating at an event sponsored by the high school and supervised by employees of the district.”
That beating came at the hands of Howard, a “large and aggressive male who had been sent to live with his relatives in Idaho due to his inability to keep out of trouble in Texas,” the suit said. It also said Howard brought with him from Texas “a culture of racial hatred towards the plaintiff.”
During a preseason football camp, players and coaches organized fist fights to help players “toughen up,” and one night Howard and the victim were assigned to fight, the suit alleges.
“The plaintiff was placed in the middle of this circle wearing boxing gloves to face the bully John Howard who was bare fisted,” the suit said. “Mr. Howard is much bigger and stronger than the plaintiff, who had never worn boxing gloves nor participated in such activity in his life.”
Howard knocked down the victim several times before finally knocking him unconscious, the suit said.
“The beating of the plaintiff was accompanied by catcalls, taunts and racial epithets of the football players/students in full view of coaches who not only failed to prevent the abuse but actively promoted it,” the lawsuit alleges.
Howard also made the victim learn a “vicious Ku Klux Klan song” and recited the song to him “at the same time a confederate flag was posted on Mr. Howard’s computer,” the lawsuit said. Howard’s actions were ignored by school officials and football coaches “in part due to his athletic ability and community connections.”
The suit said the victim was also humped and taunted during football practices, called names like “Kool-Aid, chicken eater, watermelon and (N-word),” and “continuously subjected” to wedgies, in which his underwear was yanked up out of his pants causing “extreme pain, humiliation and suffering and tearing of the underpants.”
This abuse was “clearly apparent, obviously foreseeable and entirely preventable, but the (school administrators and coaches) ignored and/or neglected their clear duty with deliberate indifference,” the suit said.
“Quite clearly, the school district had a clear obligation to recognize the threat and to anticipate what would happen,” Roark said Wednesday.
School administrators failed to take responsible action and “were intentionally and negligently indifferent” to the abuse, knew the victim was “essentially helpless and incapable of defending himself” because of his mental disability and race but failed to take responsible action, the lawsuit said.
Dietrich has a population of 335 and in Lincoln County, where less than 0.5 percent of the population is black.
“The district’s athletic coaches, both employees and volunteers, were aware or should have been aware that the plaintiff was made the brunt of racial epithets, harassment, humiliation as well as physical attacks on the athletic field, on team bus trips and in the locker room and yet took no reasonable action to protect the plaintiff from such conduct by his fellow students and prevent its continuation,” the lawsuit said.
The victim, whom the suit says suffers from mental disabilities, testified during Ward’s April 22 preliminary hearing. He told the court that Howard and Ward gave him a “power wedgie” before practice on the same day as the sexual assault, leaving his underwear torn.
After practice he was lured into a hug by one teammate, he testified, but as he wrapped his arms around his friend, Ward shoved the hanger in his rectum and Howard kicked it several times. All along, he called the attackers his friends.
The civil lawsuit seeks damages “of not less than $10 million,” declaration that school officials violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, punitive damages as decided by the court or a jury and “any and all other appropriate relief.”