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The first link you see on the Silsbee (Texas) High School web page, right under a photo of its main building with a proud S on the facade and a sign that proclaims TIGER COUNTRY, sends you to the Spectator Rules of Conduct, which prohibit insults, ridicule and chants that taunt. It's an antibullying code for athletic events. But does it protect anyone from offensive behavior off the gym floor—in, say, the foyer next to a concession stand? And what if the "mean girls" are school administrators?
On Feb. 27, 2009, in a Glee moment with a few real-life Sue Sylvesters, a Tigers cheerleader—one of the popular people—found herself surrounded at halftime of a basketball playoff game. "It was the administrators against me," she recalls. As fans walked by, the cheerleader, dressed in her maroon-and-white uniform, was reduced to tears by a powerful posse: Silsbee superintendent Richard Bain, principal Gaye Lokey and cheerleading coach Sissy McInnis. Voices raised, they issued an ultimatum to the 16-year-old: Cheer for Rakheem Bolton or go home. "It wasn't right," she says.
Four months earlier the cheerleader, known in court documents as H.S., had told police that at a house party where beer flowed to minors, she had been cornered in a room by three young men—Bolton, 17; another athlete, Christian Rountree, 18; and a 16-year-old unidentified in legal records—who locked the door and sexually assaulted her. Her screams were heard; the police were called; charges were filed. In a town whose population is 7,341 and whose high school football stadium seats 7,000, the tale of that October night spread from Avenue B to Avenue R along the main drag of Silsbee. The alleged assault prompted two questions: How would it affect the girl? And how would it affect the team? H.S. saw a therapist, who urged her to resume her routine to help deal with the trauma. The alleged assailants were barred from campus, and she chose to cheer again. Then, in January 2009, a Hardin County grand jury decided there was not enough evidence to pursue charges.
Bolton, a football and basketball star, was back on the court by February, but the wheels of justice would continue to turn. In November 2009 another grand jury, convened because of renewed interest in the case, would indict Bolton and Rountree on charges of sexual assault of a minor. (Bolton would plead guilty to a lesser offense, simple assault, in September; Rountree is awaiting his arraignment.) But in the meantime Silsbee officials had to heed the decision of the first grand jury. Bolton could play. While school officials did not return SI's calls, Tanner Hunt Jr., the attorney for the district, notes, "They followed the law." Fair enough. But the law wasn't in question during the basketball game that winter night. It was kindness and common sense that were on the line.
By custom Tigers cheerleaders support any player at the foul line by shouting his name. In the first half Bolton was fouled twice. H.S. had been cheering as usual, but each time Bolton went to the line, in a peaceful protest, she folded her arms, stepped back and remained silent while her squad cheered, "Go, Rakheem!" After the halftime buzzer, H.S. was scolded "in front of God and everybody," says her father. H.S. had not "abided by the Cheerleader Constitution," according to Hunt. The code requires cheerleaders to shout equally for all. Rather than cheer for Bolton, she chose to go home.
The violation was apparently so egregious that as H.S. walked into cheerleading class the following Monday, McInnis met her with this hello: Go to the principal's office. H.S. was kicked off the squad. Within an hour her father was in Bain's office. "I asked him, 'Are you telling me that my daughter had to cheer for her [attacker]?'" recalls the father. "He told me that if it means she had to cheer for Bolton or be removed, then that's what I'm telling you."
Though H.S. was later permitted to rejoin the cheerleading squad if she would follow its rules, the family filed a civil suit against the school district, and on Sept. 16 the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that H.S.'s silent protest was not protected speech under the First Amendment. However, the court wrangling distracts from the bottom line: A school is supposed to be an emotional safe haven for all students, and educators should help, not harass, students in vulnerable positions. Why force H.S. to do something that made her uncomfortable? Why not err on the side of compassion? "For all anyone knew," Hunt says of the protest, "it was a girl mad at a boy." By this rationale a rape charge is no different from a text-message breakup.
"They chose to support the athlete," says Larry Watts, H.S.'s attorney, who last week asked the court to rehear the constitutional case. "They chose to support the male. It's just good ol' testosteronic East Texas."
The students involved in the controversy are gone now. H.S. graduated and has college plans. She vows to keep pressing ahead legally to "make it easier for other girls if they have to go through this." Bolton is on probation and entering an anger management program as part of his plea deal. He is also trying to enroll in college. However, lessons remain to be learned—by the educators. "If there was something to apologize for, we would," Hunt says. This is not Glee. This is sad.