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An Idaho town grapples with an ugly mix — high school football, racism and rape

John R.K. Howard, 18, is one of three teens arrested in the sexual assault of a black football teammate.
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It began with racist taunts and pranks, escalated to physical harassment and ended, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Idaho, in a horrific act of rape by three white high school football players against their mentally disabled, African American teammate.

The $10-million lawsuit filed by the black teenager has thrown a small, mostly white Idaho town into the spotlight, shocking residents in a quiet community previously known mostly for its corn and potato farmers.

Filed against Dietrich High School, where the incident allegedly occurred in October, the lawsuit says one student held back the victim, another shoved a coat hanger into his anus and a third kicked the hanger in. It says the rape was the final blow in a series of racist taunts and forced simulated sex acts by teammates that were ignored by school administrators.

The student was taken to two hospitals for treatment of his injuries.

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The suit details months of abuse. In one incident, the black teen, an adopted child of white parents, was called names by other team members that included “chicken eater,” “watermelon” and the N-word.

It also says that in another incident, one of the white attackers had shown the victim a Confederate flag on a computer and tried to teach him a racist song called “Notorious KKK.” Another time, students jumped on the black teen and simulated anal sex during football practice. The lawsuit says the teen was once stripped of his football shorts and shirt on a school bus while a teammate took a cellphone photo of him as coaches watched.

We want this to not happen again. We want this young man to be made whole.

E. Lee Schlender, an attorney for the plaintiff

“We want this to not happen again. We want this young man to be made whole,” said E. Lee Schlender, an attorney representing the teen, who recently graduated. “It’s really stunning for this to happen in small-town Idaho.”

The lawsuit names 11 defendants who are coaches, volunteers, administrators or other officials at Dietrich High School or the school system, saying they saw verbal and physical assaults and failed to protect the victim who was “essentially helpless” because of his disability.

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The three white players were charged by the Idaho attorney general’s office with sexual assault several months after an investigation that began after the Oct. 23 incident. Two of them, 18-year-old John R.K. Howard and 17-year-old Tanner Ward, face felony charges of forcible penetration by use of a foreign object. A third football player, age 16, is charged as a juvenile and has not been named. The specific charges against him have not been made public.

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Howard, who is finishing high school in Texas, has a preliminary hearing on June 10, while Ward faces trial in September.

Lawyers for Howard and Ward did not return phone calls seeking comment. A school district official also declined to comment, and calls made to individual school officials named as defendants were not returned.

The victim’s mother, a Mormon who has adopted several children of different racial backgrounds, referred questions to Schlender. The victim was adopted when he was 4, according to the lawsuit, and Schlender says he was “considered very much part of the community before these incidents happened.” The victim had “few to no” issues being a black teen in a predominantly white town until recently, Schlender said, and has been through counseling and turned to his Mormon ward for support.

Dietrich, with a population of 334, is the kind of place where “there’s usually only one place to go in town, and things close early,” said Janet Towne, a cook at Eagle’s Nest, a bar and restaurant on the edge of town, who said the rape allegations were “very well known” in the community.

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She also said they were a surprise.

It’s not a racist place. Things like this don’t happen.

Janet Towne, a cook at the Eagle’s Nest restaurant and bar

“It’s not a racist place. Things like this don’t happen,” she said. “We’ve never heard of anything like this until now.”

Dietrich Mayor Don Heiken shared a similar view.

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“This was an isolated incident in our school. I don’t like what happened either. These three white kids were rejects from other schools that were sent here because they got in trouble where they were living before. Other than that Dietrich is a nice town. I should know, I grew up here and have lived here all of my life (64 years),” he wrote in an email. “Please don’t judge our little town by what you have heard.”

Jaweed Kaleem is the the Times’ national race and justice correspondent. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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