Rape allegation, race, national media divide town
Dietrich, Idaho — Teaching her children how to peacefully respond to racist comments in a tiny Idaho town was not new for the mother of 20 adopted children, many of whom are black. She often found herself echoing the virtues taught in Dietrich’s only church.
Kindness and patience can overcome ignorance in the mostly white, rural community, she told her kids. Forgive. Turn the other cheek.
Then her black teenage son joined the football team. Within months, three of his teammates used a coat hanger to sexually assault him in a school locker room, prosecutors say. The attack came after the woman said she spent months trying to convince school officials that her and her husband’s concerns about the repeated racist harassment directed at their children needed to be treated seriously.
The allegations of prolonged racist taunts and physical abuse were revealed this month when the family filed a $10 million lawsuit against the Dietrich School District. It claims the school failed to prevent the abuse even though much of it happened in front of football coaches and school officials.
Three teens have been charged in the Oct. 23 assault: two with felonies in adult court and one in juvenile court. In the lawsuit, the victim contends one of his teammates pretended to want to hug him but instead held him down so 17-year-old Tanner Ward and 18-year-old John Howard could assault him.
Ward has pleaded not guilty, and Howard has not yet entered a plea. The juvenile court case is sealed.
“Sometimes I wish I hadn’t said anything,” the mother said. “Then we could have lived a quiet life. But when you’re right, you sometimes have to stand alone.”
The Associated Press does not generally identify victims of sexual abuse and is withholding the woman’s name to avoid identifying her son.
Ward’s attorney declined to comment, saying he was court-ordered not to discuss his client’s case with the media. Howard’s attorney did not return a request for comment.
The victim’s mother, who is white, said her son was not alone in experiencing hurtful comments from fellow students. Another son was called the N-word in grade school, a daughter was called “Aunt Jemima,” and another child was told by fellow students to “go back to Africa.” The school district treated the taunts with indifference, she said.
School officials have repeatedly denied requests for comment from the AP. However, other residents of the town that revolves largely around church and school sports say it’s a safe and welcoming place. They’re stunned by the allegations, but some are unhappy the family took the district to court.
It’s not the first time the family has been on the wrong side of local public opinion. The teen’s father, a teacher at the school, received an ethics complaint in 2013 for saying the word “vagina” during a biology class. The complaint was eventually deemed unfounded, but the incident made national headlines, and the mother said residents who treated their family with disdain a few years ago have returned with the same anger.
Melissa Towne, 37, who has spent her whole life in the town of about 330 people, says Dietrich is a good place despite the negative attention. People wave at one another as they pass on the mostly gravel roads, and Towne makes it a point to welcome the occasional new neighbor.
“We never had this kind of attention when I was in school,” she said. “But I still like it here. We have good people here. I like living in a small town, and so do a lot of people who live here.”
Most residents attend church in the simple Mormon building that marks the town’s main entrance. Basketball is the favored sport because of a series of state championships, but the high school football program is gaining popularity thanks to a recent winning streak and new equipment donations.
“In this town, it’s all about your name and how athletic you are,” the victim’s mother said.
She and her husband have lived in Dietrich for more than two decades, though many of their children are older and have moved away. Large families and adoptions are common in the Mormon faith.
Most families in Dietrich, about 125 miles east of Boise, tally their time there in decades, not years.
“Everyone who is from here pitches in and helps each other,” said Clay Divine, who has lived in the town for more than 30 years. “Those kids were not from here. This is a nice community.”
Still, Ward is practically a next-door neighbor in the rural region where the nearest Wal-Mart is 40 miles away. He hails from Richfield, a slightly larger town of about 480 just 16 miles away.
Howard, accused in the lawsuit of being the ringleader in the attack, moved to Dietrich last year from Keller, Texas, a city nestled inside the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area.
But he’s related to a Dietrich celebrity — Acey Shaw, a beloved girls’ basketball coach who led the team to a record five state championships. The town rallied around Shaw after he contracted a rare bovine disease that stole his ability to walk and most of his ability to talk.
The victim’s lawsuit cited that family connection, arguing school officials looked the other way on Howard’s behavior because of his relatives.
It also said the victim has mental disabilities, though it does not elaborate. His mother declined to discuss specifics about the boy and the case.
Divine said he felt bad for the victim and understands why the state pressed charges against his teammates. But the lawsuit has given the town another black eye, Divine said, and in the insular community, that offense can be hard to forgive.
“This lawsuit really has people divided,” Divine said. “But it happened on the coaches’ watch, and this is something that young man is going to have to live with his whole life.”
Divine’s children grew up in the Dietrich school system, where they played sports and studied hard in a safe environment. He’s not sure that’s the case now.
“This is a good town for my grandchildren. I just don’t think I would send them to the school anymore,” he said.
Just down the road, the victim’s mother was working in her front yard, waiting for a call back from a real estate agent. After 21 years in Dietrich, they’re searching for someplace safer.