A federal appeals court has upheld the decision of a Texas school district to punish a cheerleader for refusing to cheer for a player who pled guilty to attacking her.
While a grand jury decided against indicting Rakheem Bolton on allegations of rape leveled by the victim, the basketball player later pled guilty to a lesser charge of Class A assault.
The case involves the minor girl identified in court documents only as H.S., from Silsbee High School in Texas.
Judges Emilio Garza, Edith Brown Clement and Priscilla Owen, sitting as a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cheerleader was damaging the school when she refused to cheer Rakheem’s name.
“In her capacity as cheerleader, H.S. served as a mouthpiece through which (the district) could disseminate speech – namely, support for its athletic teams,” the judges wrote. “Insofar as the First Amendment does not require schools to promote particular student speech, (the district) had no duty to promote H.S.’ message by allowing her to cheer or not cheer, as she saw fit.”
The judges continued, “Moreover, the act 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.”
“Well, I’m sure H.S. never expected to be ‘volunteering’ to cheer for someone who had assaulted her,” Alex DiBranco wrote in a commentary at Women’s Rights, one of the few blogs and opinion sites even to mention the case.
“And the idea that just being silent during Bolton’s free throws, a barely noticeable act, was ‘substantial interference with the work of the school,’ – um, we’re talking extracurricular sports, not classroom disruption – makes little sense.”
The editorial called the court’s conclusion “absurd,” explaining the cheerleader simply “refused to shout the first name of the man who assaulted her when he stood up alone to make free throws.”
“It seems like she was being more than accommodating, when a student athlete facing trial on rape charges mostly likely should have been suspended from the team. … In a display of extreme disrespect for a rape survivor and disregard for her well-being, school officials insisted that H.S. had to scream ‘Rakheem’ with the rest of the cheerleaders, or she’d be kicked off the squad.”
One news site reported the student had accused Bolton of attacking her at a party in October 2008. He was suspended from the team until, in January 2009, a grand jury declined to indict him. H.S. and her parents then brought the current case.
Just days before the appellate court released its opinion last month, Bolton pled guilty to a charge of Class A assault and was sentenced to two years’ probation, according to reports.
The First Amendment Center reported the claim by her parents on behalf of the cheerleader named District Attorney David Sheffield, Silsbee Independent School District, Superintendent Richard Bain Jr., Principal Gaye Lokey and others. It asserted Sheffield violated the First Amendment by retaliating against H.S. for filing sexual-assault charges by revealing details of the case publicly.
A Missouri City, Texas, attorney, Laurence Wade Watts, who represents H.S., told the First Amendment Center he may petition for rehearing.
“My client engaged in clear symbolic speech for a moment against a man who has now pled guilty to having assaulted her, in a setting choreographed by the school district, and yet that was not factually disruptive of the school program,” the attorney told the center.
At the Ms. Magazine blog, the judge’s ruling was described as “bizarre.”
The report also documented the circumstances of the attack.
“According to H.S. … Bolton, football player Christian Rountree and another juvenile male forced her into a room, locked the door, held her down and sexually assaulted her. When other party-goers tried to get into the room, two of the men fled through an open window, including Bolton, who left clothing behind. Bolton allegedly threatened to shoot the occupants of the house when the homeowner refused to return his clothes.”
The report said the school officials even encouraged H.S. to “keep a low profile,” such as avoiding the school cafeteria and to avoid taking part in homecoming.
“Silsbee High School officials should be held accountable for their actions,” the magazine article advocated.
Forum participants agreed:
- One wonders if [daughters of the superintendent and principal] had been raped, sexually assaulted by Mr. Bolton, would they ask her to brush it off and cheer, cheer, cheer?
- From the little I’ve read about her here H.S.’ strength seems to be incredible. She knows what was done to her was wrong and that she has NOTHING to be ashamed of! To H.S., and all other brave young women like you – keep fighting!!
- Why is a criminal allowed to play basketball, and his victim not allowed to cheer?