November 6, 2010

Cheer for rapist or else, appellate court rules

First, she was raped.

Then, she was told she must cheer for her rapist.

Now, a federal appeals court ruling that she had no grounds to protest is putting the tiny town of Silsbee, Texas on the map.

It all started when a group of boys grabbed 16-year-old "H.S." at a post-football game party two years ago, dragged her into a room, locked the door, and proceeded to sexually assault her.

After the assault, H.S. went back to cheerleading at Silsbee High School. But when her rapist sauntered up to the foul line for a free throw, H.S. sat down and turned her back.

"I didn’t want to have to say his name, and I didn’t want to cheer for him," the girl said. "I didn't want to encourage anything he was doing."

The district superintendent, his assistant, and the school principal called her outside and demanded that she cheer for the star athlete, Rakheem Bolton. Either that, or go home. Fans, meanwhile, sat in the bleachers and mocked the crying girl.

As is frequently the case in gang rapes involving athletes and other cultural icons of masculinity, the high school and community rallied around the rapists. H.S. was forced off the squad. In the coming weeks, she and her family underwent a campaign of harassment in the small town of 6,300.

"They were the star athletes, and I was standing up to them," San Francisco Chronicle legal reporter Bob Egelko quotes her as saying.

A panel of three of the most conservatives judges on the Fifth U.S. Circuit of Appeals in New Orleans has denied her claim that her free speech rights were violated. As a "mouthpiece" for the school, she had no right to refuse to cheer for her rapist, they ruled. Indeed, it was she and not the school whose rights were violated:
As a cheerleader … H.S. was contractually required to cheer for the basketball team, whose roster included Bolton…. H.S. served as a mouthpiece through which [the school] could disseminate speech -- namely, support for its athletic teams…. [H.S.'s refusal to cheer] constituted substantial interference with the work of the school because, as a cheerleader, H.S. was at the basketball game for the purpose of cheering, a position she undertook voluntarily.
The girl's lawyer said he will petition for a rehearing in front of the full appeals court.

While the cheerleading aspect of this case is unusual, gang rapes by members of the masculine elite such as athletes, soldiers and fraternity members are common. As I discuss in my theoretical overview of gang rape in Sexuality Research and Social Policy, such assaults serve a variety of functions, including social bonding, the celebration of power, and the public display of heterosexual masculinity through the subordination of women. In other words, group rape of women is a form of cultural theater, in which the victim serves as a mere dramatic prop.

As in this case, the main weapon of these group rapists is alcohol. Also common is for police, prosecutors, judges, school officials and other representatives of the power structure to side with the assailants against the victim.

Here, it appears that H.S. was re-victimized at every stage in the process.

Although Bolton and two alleged co-participants were arrested almost immediately, an initial grand jury declined to indict. Meanwhile, H.S. and her family were told that the rape kit collected that night would not be processed for DNA evidence for more than a year, due to a backlog of cases. The boys were allowed to return to school, and Bolton was allowed back on the basketball team.

When H.S. complained to school officials that students were taunting her in the cafeteria, they told her to keep a low profile and stay out of the cafeteria, according to her court documents.

Eventually, a special prosecutor was appointed. Bolton pleaded guilty to a lesser assault charge and was expelled from the school. He has denied raping H.S., and said it was all a "misunderstanding." The case of codefendant Christian Rountree is still pending.

No matter what the 5th Circuit Court says, it seems outrageous to me that someone can essentially be fired from a job for refusing to cheer for her rapist. But, hey, that's just me.

Bob Egelko's excellent article, explaining the legal landscape of diminishing free speech rights on high school campuses, is HERE. The 5th Circuit ruling is HERE.

Photo: Ultra-conservative jurist Priscilla Owen,
one of three judges who issued the ruling against the cheerleader.