Three white high school football players in Idaho are facing charges of sexually assaulting a black teammate with mental disabilities after months of racially charged harassment.
Last October, the three students allegedly lured the victim inside the Dietrich High School locker room under the pretense that they wanted to give him a hug. Instead, prosecutors said, they thrust a coat hanger in his rectum — and one of the assailants kicked the object several times.
John R.K. Howard, 18 — who transferred to Dietrich High from Keller, Texas — and Tanner Ward, 17, are being tried as adults due to the serious nature of the crime. They could face life in prison if convicted of the charges, which include felony forcible penetration with a foreign object. Idaho law mandates that juveniles aged 14 to 18 accused of committing certain crimes on or near school campuses are charged as adults.
The third accused boy, an unnamed 16-year-old, is being charged as a juvenile.
The teen victim is 18 and graduated last year. BuzzFeed News is choosing not to name him. At an early age, the victim was diagnosed with mental disorders, including learning disabilities. When he entered Dietrich High School, he was placed in a special program for students with learning disabilities and given an individualized education program.
The victim testified about the alleged assault last week during a preliminary hearing for Ward. He said it happened on Oct. 22, 2015, after a football practice.
“I screamed,” the victim testified. “I was pretty upset. I felt really bad. A little bit betrayed and confused at the same time. It was terrible — a pain I’ve never felt.”
The victim testified that Howard and Ward harassed him before practice when they gave him a “power wedgie” that was so violent it tore his boxers.
The victim said Dietrich School District Superintendent Ben Hardcastle and Principal Stephanie Shaw interviewed him within a week of the incident. The victim said he and his mother reported the attack to Hardcastle the day after it happened.
“As far as we know, we’re not sure of their internal investigation. We’re going to find out,” one of the attorneys for the family, Lee Schlender, told BuzzFeed News in an interview on Wednesday.
Friday’s hearing was the first time details of the assault were made public — a judge sealed records in the case at the request of the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, which took over the investigation in November and charged the three teenagers on March 4, MagicValley.com reports.
Another teammate called to the stand Friday was inside the locker room after the team’s practice and said he witnessed the assault. He testified that Ward initiated the attack using a hanger, which Howard then kicked “five or six” times. The witness said he didn’t recall if either Ward or Howard said anything but remembered them both laughing at the victim, who appeared to be in pain.
More details of the alleged months-long harassment were outlined in a civil rights lawsuit filed last week on behalf of the victim’s family and provided to BuzzFeed News by their attorneys.
The civil complaint names the school district, Hardcastle, Shaw, and several coaches as defendants and accuses them of failing to intervene and end the abuse against the victim.
“The primary defendant in this case is the school district for not stopping this,” Schlender said.
According to the complaint, the defendants “were all on notice and well aware that [the victim] had learning disabilities and cognitive deficits that rendered him defenseless and helpless in coping with bullying, racial taunting, beating and rape.”
The victim made the football team in 2015; that same year, Howard transferred to the high school to live with relatives in Dietrich and, along with other members of the team, began to taunt and harass the victim, according to the complaint.
According to the complaint, in the summer of 2015, the victim was taunted and called racist names by teammates including “Kool-Aid,” “chicken eater,” “watermelon,” and “nigger.” Howard also taught the victim a Ku Klux Klan song, “Notorious KKK,” and demanded that he recite the lyrics.
During football practices the other players jumped on the victim and humped him aggressively. The complaint alleges that coaches and school staff were aware of this behavior and did nothing to stop it.
In late August 2015, as part of a “toughening up” program, team members had fistfights in the presence of coaches at a team camp on a farm in Dietrich, according to the complaint. At one point, the victim was placed in the center of a circle of his teammates and coaches and told to face off against Howard.
The victim, who had never boxed, was given boxing gloves while Howard fought bare-fisted. While his fellow students shouted “catcalls” and “racial epithets,” Howard beat the victim unconscious in full view of the coaches.
The school district has until early next month to answer the claims made in the civil lawsuit. Emails to Hardcastle and Shaw on Wednesday went unanswered. An administrative assistant for the school district’s office told BuzzFeed News by phone, “At this time the district will not comment on student matters that are in record or litigation.”
Speaking on behalf of the victim's family, Schlender said, “It’s a very difficult time for them, that’s the best I can say. The attention given to the case is something I am sure they were unprepared for.”
In the criminal proceedings, Ward is next due in district court on May 3 for arraignment, at which time he’ll be asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. Howard, who is currently finishing high school in Texas, is set for a June 10 preliminary hearing, MagicValley.com reports.
Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Mike Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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