It started with locker room taunting, bullying and racial slurs. Then it led to an offer for a hug.
The hug turned into a restraining hold and the hold became an assault.
The victim—a kid who just wanted everyone to like him—bled from his injuries and asked, "Why?"
It's a question that rocked the small town of Dietrich, Idaho, a historic railroad stop between long stretches of grazing cattle herds and sagebrush. Not much happens there other than harvesting beets, ordering the giant chicken fried steak at the Eagle's Nest and running into neighbors at the local convenience store. And football. Dietrich is a place where high-school football rules, but if you blink while driving along desolate Highway 24, you might just miss it.
Now the world's eyes are on Dietrich.
News of an assault on a black student with disabilities by members of the Dietrich High School football team in 2015 drew international attention following the arrest of two players on sexual assault charges.
The crime made headlines in part because of its horrific nature—a coat hanger was inserted into the student's rectum and kicked by one of his assailants, causing internal injuries—in part because of the light sentence handed down to one defendant in late February—three years of probation and community service—and in part because of the "boys will be boys" mentality of the community and actions—or lack of actions—of the school district, which a civil suit alleges turned away from helping a student with disabilities who endured months of racial bullying and torment at the hands of popular football players.
The crime and the sentence left civil rights advocates and many in Dietrich echoing the victim's pained question: "Why?"
"They still have Hitler in their heart," the teen wrote in a poem he penned during a stay in a psychiatric institution months after the attack, which, aside from his injuries, prompted multiple suicide attempts.
"But what society doesn't know is that a kicked in hanger can bruise and penetrate the heart," he wrote. "Why Lord, does this happen to us?"
He keeps asking, "Why me? These are my friends," said the victim's attorney, E. Lee Schlender, who filed a civil suit against the Dietrich School District alleging school officials did nothing to stop the months of abuse that culminated in the assault.
The poem says it all, he said.
"He can't process what he did wrong. He can't process it. 'There must be something wrong with me,' he says. He doesn't understand that he can't process it. That causes him to no end of mental anguish," said Schlender.
The victim, the people who love him and disability advocates are met with complex answers when locals try to explain "why."
"Kids will be kids and I think that's a case of what happened. Kids were being kids and the community suffered because of that," said Tancy Sorensen, who moved to Dietrich after bouncing from town to town across the country—moving 21 times in nine years. She likes the affordable housing and quiet in the nearly all white, predominantly Latter-Day Saint community of 330 people.
"You know when you've found a place that's good," Sorenson said between cleaning duties at Dietrich's one and only mini-mart, which, along with the Eagle's Nest and LDS church, makes up the commercial and social center of town.
"It's actually a really tight community. They're good about helping people out. Guys will come and plow people's driveways, just because," Sorensen said. "I've always been in love with Dietrich. It's the one place I've lived where I feel safe."
The tight, quiet, small-town feel that gives Sorenson comfort and safety proved almost deadly in the Dietrich High School locker room in 2015.
Months of racial taunting and bullying culminated in October 2015, when a group of high-school football players gathered in the locker room and begin physically accosting the victim, who Boise Weekly and other media outlets have chosen not to name for his protection.
Court documents contend one of the football players pretended to hug the victim but instead physically restrained him while teammate Tanner Ward, who was 17 at the time, forced a coat hanger into the victim's rectum. John R.K. Howard, 18, kicked the hanger, driving it farther into the victim's body.
Howard faced adult charges for forcible sexual penetration with a foreign object. If convicted, he could have been sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors offered Howard a deal and reduced his charges to felony injury to a child. In late February, a judge sentenced Howard to three years probation and 300 hours of community service. Howard entered an Alford plea, which allowed him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging prosecutors would likely win a conviction had the case gone to trial. The case documents for the other defendants remain sealed because they were juveniles at the time of the incident.
"It's given us a bad reputation. In a way, I think it hurt," said Janet Towne, a server at the Eagle's Nest. "It didn't help. That's what everyone thinks about when they talk about Dietrich."
Code of Silence
Much like a locker room code of silence nearly kept the assault hidden, silence fell on the rural community following news of the crime, Schlender says.
Towne said neighbors stopped talking to each other as news of the attack spread, area schools didn't want to hold events or games in the community, and the town became divided between those who supported the perpetrators and those who supported the victim.
"Some of us think one way, and others think another way," Towne said. "We've agreed to disagree. I know the people I could talk to about it and the people I can't talk to about it. The two kids that were involved in that were not even from here. They're long gone but we're still paying the price."
Outrage over the case stretched as far as New Zealand, where Gary Elshaw grew so infuriated about the reduced charges, he created petitions on Moveon.org and Change.org demanding, among other things, a review of the case by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden—and an apology from the AG to the victim's family.
"I don't know the people or culture of Idaho and I would never judge them. But this case reveals that the institutions of Idaho, the school and the justice system, have failed [the victim] and have irreparably changed his life. For the benefit of all its citizens, the people of Idaho should be asking significant questions of its school and judicial system to ensure this doesn't happen again," Elshaw wrote in an email.
Those sentiments were felt across the U.S. as well, with many calling for an independent investigation and a civil suit to get justice for a victim many say was failed repeatedly by institutions and people who were meant to protect him.
"It has to be in the annals of law. One of the more compelling issues we face is the protection of the disabled and those who can't protect themselves. We can bring them justice," Schlender said, explaining the reason behind the civil suit, which alleges the school district and its employees repeatedly failed to protect the victim.The district and Howard's attorney did not respond to Boise Weekly's requests for comment.
In February, the NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho-Nevada-Utah asked the U.S. Department of Justice to file a violation of civil rights on behalf of the victim in the Dietrich case. The NAACP alleges the school failed the victim and he was victimized twice. The group also called on the District of Idaho U.S. Department of Justice to assess whether the investigation was consistent with the policies and procedures of the attorney general.
A recent Associated Press review of more than 2,000 legal records found that Dietrich school officials failed to report the incident and conducted their own investigation, which included seizing the coat hanger and interviewing witnesses. The AP found that school officials told the victim his testimony would tarnish the community of Dietrich and send his friends to jail.
The case could have a ripple effect in schools where bullying has become an epidemic.
While Schlender said a civil case could bring justice where the victim found none, others question why the students didn't face sex crime charges—and why they were never prosecuted for a hate crime in the commission of what some simply call rape.
"It's not the fault of the law. It's the fault of the application of the law," said Stephen Meyers, assistant professor of the Law, Societies and Justice Program at the University of Washington.
Schlender noted here are about 100 cases like the one in Dietrich pending in courts across the U.S.
"Schools are a cornerstone of democracy and they should be safe. It cannot be safe if there's fear in the hallway. It destroys the safety of the kids; it just destroys their wanting to go to school," he said.
Idaho Attorney General Senior Investigator Tony Pittz said the school's investigation did not impede prosecutors and that seizing the coat hanger and keeping it in a secure location helped investigators who couldn't arrive on the scene for a couple days.
"It's not uncommon for a school to investigate something that happened on their property. It was probably a good thing," Pitzz said.
The civil suit alleges the locker room assault followed months of racial bullying and torment. Between taunts laced with the n-word, team players called the victim "chicken eater" and taught him a KKK song they then forced him to sing. Despite the racial slurs and bullying, and the eventual assault with the coat hanger, the perpetrators never answered to hate crime, sexual assault or rape charges.
Prosecutors couldn't prove the assault happened because of the victim's race, Wasden said, though prosecutors did consider hate crime charges. Much like sexual assault charges must prove intent, malicious harassment charges depend upon evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt racial hatred underpins the intent of a crime.
"Malicious harassment is a specific intent crime, meaning that we have to produce evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the specific intent, the specific reason for the person perpetrating the crime—in this case Mr. Howard—that his specific intent was to intimidate and harass because of that person's color, religion, ancestry or national origin. What was lacking in this case was evidence," Wasden said.
"There were some names—'Grape Soda,' 'Watermelon,' so on and so forth—but they were not used near the time or location where this event occurred," Wasden added.
Deputy Attorney General Casey Hemmer told the Twin Falls Time-News that had the case gone to trial, prosecutors would have proved Howard kicked the coat hanger into the victim's rectum but said while the assault was egregious behavior and caused the victim a lot of harm, it did not constitute a sex crime.
"You have to have evidence that establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the purpose of this penetration was for sexual arousal, gratification or abuse. What we didn't have in this case was that evidence that establishes beyond a reasonable doubt this being sexual in nature," Wasden said.
What's more, in Idaho, rape is only rape if it happens with a penis.
Youth in Crisis
Court documents paint a picture of Howard as a youth in crisis who lost power and control over his life. Months before the locker room assault, Howard was being shuffled between relatives. Described in the documents as a "large and aggressive" male, Howard was sent to live with relatives in Idaho because he kept getting in trouble in Texas.
The civil complaint alleges the school district should have been aware of Howard's aggression and violent tendencies.
"Mr. Howard is a relative of prominent individuals in the community and, at least in part [due] to his athletic ability and community connections, the Defendants ignored or were deliberately indifferent to the behavior of Mr. Howard which included aggression, taunting and bullying of the Plaintiff and other students in the district. With deliberate indifference, the Defendants did nothing to curb the vicious acts of Mr. Howard who brought with him from Texas a culture of racial hatred towards the Plaintiff," the civil complaint contends.
Without paying attention to the way disability and race intersect in this case is a failure to understand it at all, said Michael Gill, who teaches disability studies at Syracuse University.
"If we continue to isolate students, if we continue to pass off certain behaviors as 'boys will be boys' or 'that's just part of growing up,' it fails to connect to a larger experience," he said.
Gill said the case is entangled with social constructions of masculinity, institutional ableism and the meaning of social space.
"That the bullying happened in the locker room setting is significant," he said. "The setting is significant in the sense that if we think about the locker room as a place in which the ideas of masculinity are policed—the fact that the student was sexually assaulted in the locker room space by members of the football team—we need to think about ways in which masculinity operates there. There's the white, heterosexual masculinity of the football players and a disabled black student who was sexually assaulted."
Professor Stephen Meyers also answers the "why" behind the Dietrich locker room assault with a look at culture and institutional failures.
"It is a reflection of a larger culture that doesn't see persons with disabilities and their violation as as much of a violation as with other people," Meyers said.
In 2015, the Idaho Legislature passed anti-bullying legislation with multiple levels of mandated implementation, which included an element of prevention and training.
"Well, what happens? Where is the money? Where is the funding for implementation?," Schlender asked. "It required constant, major funding over state funding.
"The Legislature passed a bill then everyone went home," he added. "There was a total lack of providing the people, the resources and the funding to make this an integral part of schools. It's hollow. It just didn't happen."
The funding could be used to educate school teachers and administrators about how students with disabilities are at increased risk for abuse and assault.
In 2013, the rate of violent crime against persons with disabilities was more than twice the age-adjusted rate for persons without disabilities, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Persons with disabilities experienced an estimated 1.3 million nonfatal violent victimizations, which accounted for about 21 percent of all violent victimizations that year.
"Persons with disabilities are sometimes seen as asexual and, because of that, the justice system doesn't function. It's at the level of consciousness where we see people categorize a person with disabilities. And if they are not seen as sexual, or asexual, then it's hard to recognize sexual violence," Meyers said. "They're targets and that's across disability groups."
He said that if people with disabilities are segregated from broader society they are at increased risk of victimization and more likely to be devalued as members of society.
Meyers also noted that sex education is least likely to happen in special education classrooms. That education could give people with disabilities the tools they need to identify and report abuse.
"They're at greater risk, at a greater level of vulnerability ... persons with disabilities are targets for violence. They're less likely to know what their rights are. They're less likely to know and understand what is OK and what is not OK and understand how to report something," Meyers said.
'He Didn't Understand It'
Schlender's client kept quiet about being violated with a coat hanger. His brother told their mother about the assault. Now, the victim is struggling to understand what happened from the confines of a secure mental health facility.
"He was the worst possible person to be picked upon. He didn't understand it, he just can't understand it because many of us can't understand it," Schlender said. "There is no explanation."