A Football Team, a Coat Hanger, and One Disabled Teen's Story of Horrific Abuse
James was a black and disabled kid at a mostly white school in rural Idaho. He had always dreamed of joining the football team—but it was a dream that turned into a nightmare of racist harassment and brutal sexual abuse.
Illustrations by Grace Wilson
James*, 18, who is mentally disabled and black, tells this story. On a summer night in 2015, the Dietrich High School football team gathered on an empty Idaho farm on the eve of their season. It was time to toughen up. According to a federal lawsuit filed by James and his family, the players engaged in fistfights as coaches and other athletes encircled them.
That night in August, James was put in the circle to face John Howard. According to the suit, Howard was a transplant from Texas who was known for his brawn and aggression, as well as his relentless taunting of James. James was told to put on boxing gloves; he'd never worn gloves, or been in a fight. Howard was bare-fisted.
As the players fought, the rest of the team taunted James, yelling racist names. Howard continued to knock James down until, finally, he knocked him unconscious. James alleges that the coaches and players did nothing to stop or help.
The next time his teammates ganged up on him, James would end up at the hospital—a different one this time—for rectal injuries inflicted by a coat hanger.
Dietrich is a small, rural town in southern Idaho, high, mountain desert country, with vast open spaces and small farms and a population of just 330, as of the most recent census. Many of the people who live there are Mormon. Dietrich is the only high school in town.
"This was an absolute shock to everyone," says Lee Schlender, one of the attorneys representing James and his family in a lawsuit against the school. "Crime of any kind is relatively unknown. These communities are very close-knit. The culture is very inclusive, very understanding."
The McDaniel family makes up about 20 of those 330 people. Over the years, Tim and Shelly McDaniel, who also have biological children, have adopted 20 other children, many of whom are black and Latino, some with physical or mental disabilities. Right now they have about ten kids at home. The McDaniels grow their own vegetables and raise and milk goats, and Tim is a teacher at the high school where their son was assaulted.
The McDaniels adopted James when he was four years old, and he was diagnosed early on with learning and mental disabilities. At school, according to the complaint, James has an aide assigned to him through a federal program to help him with his classes.
"He is very guarded, very slow in his speech," says Schlender. "I think [for] anyone that would talk to him normally, what would come to mind would be someone who has, perhaps, [autism]."
James wanted to play football, and he made the team his senior year. Right around the same time, Howard transferred to the school.
During the summer of 2015, at the beginning of the school's football season, Howard and other players starting teasing James, calling him racist names: "Kool-Aid," "chicken eater," "watermelon," and "nigger," according to the complaint. Court papers also describe Howard, who had a confederate flag posted on his computer, teaching James a Ku Klux Klan–inspired song called "Moon Man" and demanding that he sing it. The lyrics went:
Now who's the real dookie
All you niggers smell like shit
You niggers can ride my dick
Spear chuckers pushing up sticks
Ooga booga, go back to Africa
James's teammates gave him "power wedgies" that often resulted in his underwear being torn. They punched him. They jumped on his back and "hump[ed]" him from behind in a simulation of anal sex. Sometimes in plain view of their coaches, who did nothing. In a math class one day, a student drew a bus on the chalkboard, depicting James sitting in the back.
In the locker room after practice on October 23, 2015, one of James's teammates went to give him a hug—a gesture that could have been perceived as an olive branch, an apology for the months of taunting.
The hug was a maneuver—a trick to get James into a position, according to court papers, bending him down, while another teammate forced a coat hanger into his rectum. According to the complaint, another player "kicked the hanger several times, forcing it further." While James screamed and cried, "no staff member [from the school] came to his assistance or even attempted to investigate the clamor from within the locker room."
James was taken to two different hospitals where he was treated for rectal injuries.
James and his family are suing the school district for negligence, seeking $10 million in damages. After an investigation lasting several months, three of James's teammates, including Howard, were charged with felony sexual assault, according to the Idaho State Judiciary. Two of them, Howard and Tanner Ward, are being charged as adults and could face life in prison if found guilty. A third is being charged as a juvenile; his court records are sealed.
The case—and particularly the racial aspects—shocked Schlender, who grew up not far from Dietrich.
"I'm pretty intimately familiar with the culture, and it is totally foreign to us to have animosity [like that]," he says. "That may be because we have very few people who are African American," he was quick to add. "Only in the last 20 years have we had many people who are [not] Caucasian, and that's primarily the Hispanic [population]."
Much of the diversity in the town is owed to the McDaniels. After the McDaniels filed the lawsuit against the school, many people in the community turned against them, Schlender says.
"It has been a nightmare. The reaction has been outrage [against the family], and there has been a constant drumbeat of trying to get [James] to change his story, to change the facts," Schlender says. "They somehow think that this was just a 'boys will be boys' kind of thing and has been blown out of proportion. That's the prevailing climate."
Many people resent the attorney general's involvement and questions from the press.
"Imagine being by yourself in the middle of nowhere in a small, dusty little town where you have all these children, little or no money, and something like this happens. Suddenly you are accused of being someone who's tearing apart the town," says Schlender.
They somehow think that this was just a 'boys will be boys' kind of thing.
Due in part to the town's size and to its relatively large Mormon community—the families of the accused and the McDaniels are all Mormon—there is an expectation that people handle conflict within the community, without bringing in outsiders. One of the tenets of Mormonism is to resolve disputes within the church, and Schlender says that these "regular, almost formal proceedings" involve a church committee that attempts to resolve any issues. It's a system that, for the most part, works well with small disputes—"differences over farming," Schlender says, "[or] someone owes some bills to the grocery store."
"There's a strong feeling that what happens in our town stays in our town, and we take care of ourselves. Which is true because they had to traditionally—the sheriff is 50 miles away. There's usually no town policeman," Schlender explains. "The attitude has been to lash out at [James] and the family, that this is bringing the town disrespect and ridicule," he says. "I guess they think they could have handled this within the little community. I don't know how."
Preliminary hearings are underway in the criminal case against the three football players. Schlender foresees an uphill battle in the family's lawsuit. In the past, federal courts have ruled that schools often have little to no responsibility for what students might do to each other on school grounds.
"The trend is to hold the districts more accountable for things that they knew about and were indifferent to," says Schlender. "It's extremely difficult to hold a school district responsible for even something of this kind."
That responsibility can be applied differently when the victim in question is disabled, and their rights are protected under federal law. If the courts find that a vulnerable category of students was discriminated against, then they lean towards the side of the plaintiff.
Former prosecutor and Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson tells Broadly that in a civil case like this, it's common for witnesses to assert their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves.
"This case is horrific," Levenson says, "one of the worst I have ever seen. This didn't have to happen. The school and community have a responsibility to protect this child. This is not Lord of the Flies. It's real life, and kids need to be protected."
The school district did not respond to Broadly's request for comment, but their answer to the lawsuit, filed last week, said that James and his family "failed to provide notice to the district that the alleged misconduct had occurred or was occurring, thereby depriving defendants of an opportunity to stop or prevent such misconduct."
The McDaniel family doesn't see a lot of options. They've put their house on the market and are thinking of leaving the area, to escape the harassment of the community.
James was hospitalized again two weeks ago. Schlender says that the stress of the town's pressure to get him to say the assault never happened made him very sick. He wrote a poem while he was in the hospital, which, with his mother Shelly's permission, Schlender provided to Broadly.
"The worlds not used to people like me," he writes. "But what society doesn't know is that a kicked in hanger can bruise and penetrate the heart... It leaves you walking on a stub because of the burden put on you by the people you thought you once loved. The ground and lock the door for your opportunities, and leave you helpless, without a sound. Why lord why does this happen to us send us to earth to be sent to the back of the bus."
*Name has been changed.