SILSBEE, Texas -- Rakheem Bolton approached the free-throw line as his school's cheerleading squad rooted for him to hit the shot during a 2009 playoff game.
One cheerleader stepped away from the group, folded her arms and stood in silence, refusing to cheer for the star athlete who she says raped her at a party in this Southeast Texas town.
Now, two years later, that silent protest is drawing new attention across the nation as the result of an unusual series of events. Those events left the family of the victim, who was then 16, facing $40,000 in penalties from the legal proceedings that followed the incident, while her alleged attacker was freed after reduced charges.
An online campaign is now under way to help the family with the legal costs, which were assessed by a judge who dismissed the lawsuit they filed after she was suspended as a cheerleader for her protest. The effort has gained momentum on Facebook and Twitter and collected more than $23,000. An appeal of the financial penalty is pending in federal court.
"It's really an awful statement to send on how you treat a teenage sexual assault victim," said Alex DiBranco, whose petition on Change.org has gathered more than 94,000 signatures asking the district to not to make the family pay the fees. DiBranco, a New York-based women's rights advocate, got involved after reading about the case.
The controversy is renewing debate about how the school and courts handled a sensitive matter involving teenagers, allegations made but not yet proven and a victim in a sexual incident.
Silsbee Mayor Herbert Muckleroy, a former school superintendent in the town of 7,000, said he supported how the criminal case was handled, but has doubts about making the girl's family pay the school district $40,000. "I just wish it could have been settled and over with and let the community settle back in," he said.
The father of the girl, who is now 19, said he cannot accept that a rape victim and her family are being punished. "I will never give up hope that in some form or fashion there will be justice, (and) hope that our story will help another family, another girl that's been through this," said Craig S., 44, whose last name is being withheld to protect his daughter's identity. The Associated Press does not identify sexual assault victims.
The girl's allegations stem from an October 2008 party in which she claims she was pulled into a darkened room with Bolton and several others and raped under a pool table while she was drunk. Bolton and two others were arrested after the party. A grand jury declined to indict him in January 2009. A second grand jury indicted him 10 months later. Bolton eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser assault charge in a plea deal and was given a suspended one-year sentence. Charges were dropped against two others indicted in the incident.
The girl, who was reinstated to the cheerleading squad two weeks after being suspended, filed a federal lawsuit in May 2009, claiming the school district violated her First Amendment rights as well as her rights to liberty, property and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
In court documents, school officials said they were justified in punishing her, saying that at the time of the 2009 playoff game Bolton was not facing any charges. Her conduct violated school rules and her allegations appeared to be "the story of a girl who became angry with a boy about something that may or may not have happened at a private party," the schools' attorneys said.
Silsbee school district officials and their attorney have declined further comment on the case.
U.S. District Judge Thad Heartfield in Beaumont ruled the girl's lawsuit was "without foundation."
"There are no facts to support a finding that the school, or its officials, owed her any additional process," Heartfield wrote, and ordered the family to pay the district's legal costs. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in May declined to review it, leaving the legal fees the only issue pending.
The girl's father acknowledged that his daughter did not object to the plea deal for Bolton. He said she wanted some admission of guilt from him.
David Barlow, the special prosecutor who handled the case, said, "This was the best outcome that could have resulted, given the law and the facts."
Bolton's grandmother, who declined to give her name, said her grandson is now in college and just wants to be left alone. His accuser, who graduated from high school last year, also declined to be interviewed, her father said.
The school district remains unwilling to give the girl's family a break on the payment. "I think the district has a fiduciary responsibility and obligation to the taxpayers to try to collect on any money that is due them," said school board President John Griffin.
But news on the case reached sympathetic ears in others parts of the country. After reading about the case, Jessica Mills, an actress and writer in Los Angeles, started an online fundraising campaign to help pay the costs.
"I just thought this girl, she's been through so much already, regardless of the right and wrongs and legalities of it," said Mills, who with her friend set up the "Help the Cheerleader" web site, which lets people donate money to a bank account set up by the cheerleader's attorney.
The girl's father said he is humbled by the rising balance, mostly from donations of less than $20. He runs a landscaping business, and said paying the money would be a financial hardship. He said his daughter has had her ups and downs. After graduating in 2010, she took a year off and plans to attend Lamar University in Beaumont in the fall.
Around Silsbee, the incident continues to produce mixed feelings. Resident Terrell McArthur said he agrees with the girl's decision not to cheer for the person she believed raped her. However, the costs are a separate matter.
"It went through the judicial process," McArthur said. "I don't feel like anybody here in Silsbee needs to start taking up donations."
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