As John changed out of his gym clothes in the boys' locker room, he heard two classmates yelling at another boy. They'd just finished their powerlifting class—one only athletes on school teams are permitted to take—and should have been heading to their next class at Douglas County High School (DCHS) in Castle Rock, Colorado.
"Show us your dick," the two boys taunted as they backed the third boy into a corner. "Why won't you show us your dick?"
They then ordered the third boy to show them his pubic hair, John says, and told him that he was gay if he didn't. The boy said no, repeatedly. So the two boys turned to John, ordering him to tell the third boy that he was gay if he wouldn't show them his pubic hair.
John jumped to the boy's defense, telling the two attackers to leave him alone. They did, but only in order to turn on John.
"Show us your pubes," they yelled, "or you're a fucking faggot."
"They were older and bigger than me," says John, who asked VICE Sports that his real name not be used. "I said 'No, fuck off, I'm not gay.' They kept asking me and asking me and calling me a faggot. One boy reached for my shorts."
At first, John batted the boy's hands away. Eventually, afraid that he "was going to get ass raped," John says, he pulled down his shorts.
There were more boys in the locker room by then, though they were on the other side of the lockers, out of sight. The two attackers started yelling, again calling John a "faggot." John believes this was to humiliate him, to make anyone who overheard the confrontation think that John was the one who initiated it.
The boys left the locker room shortly after, moving on with the rest of their day. When John and his mother Susan reported the incident a few weeks later, she says, the school's administration took a similar approach, determining that two heterosexual boys attacking another heterosexual boy in the locker room did not qualify as sexual harassment, or even regular harassment.
More than four months later, John remains traumatized.
"Every morning, he asks if he can be homeschooled," says Susan, his mother. "This is a boy who used to love school."
The National Association of School Psychologists reports that nearly 80 percent of students in secondary schools experience sexual harassment. Among boys, the most common form of harassment is being called "gay" or "fag."
"In fact, sexual harassment has become so commonplace," an NASP handout explains, "that many accept it as something everyone puts up with."
Bullying has become part of the national conversation in the past decade, leading 49 states to pass anti-bullying laws. Of those, 41 states (as well as Montana, the lone state without an anti-bullying law) also have policies guiding school districts on how to deal with bullying. These laws are intended to protect students from harassment on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, and other criteria.
If there is a final frontier in the anti-bullying efforts, however, it's same-sex harassment. Particularly in a locker room context.
Ask a man of nearly any age, who played any sport, and he will likely have at least one story of a time older boys on the team messed with him in the shower after practice, or directed sexual obscenities at him on the team bus. Many will shake their heads and laugh about these stories, claim that they're not a big deal, and insist that they're necessary for team bonding; all just a part of high school sports hazing.
Others don't remember those incidents as fondly.
Verbal and physical harassment affects boys just as it would affect anyone else. It can lead to embarrassment, trouble in school, and more violent behavior, according to the NASP.
Yet, when boys are sexually harassed by teammates and friends, few report it to coaches or administrators. According to the NASP, boys have a harder time reporting harassment because, "adults may assume […] boys are wimpy if they do not stand up for themselves. Boys are expected to toughen up and put up with harassment."
Moreover, when boys do report incidents—especially incidents that occur in any type of sports setting—they are often met with the reaction that "boys will be boys;" that any harm was not intentional, because the assailants were just doing what boys do.
After the locker room incident at Douglas County High School, John says, this is exactly the reaction that he feared—and, he says, that he received.
A high school sophomore, John transferred to DCHS earlier this year because of its academic reputation. The Douglas County School District is ranked among the nation's best, and of the district's 10 high schools, DCHS is considered the strongest.
John did well in his first month at the school. By early October, though, Susan knew something was wrong. John was constantly saying he was sick and asking to skip school. She couldn't figure out what was going on, so she eventually took him to see a therapist. There, the story came pouring out.
"The first thing [John] said was, 'don't tell my dad, please don't tell my grandfather or my brother,'" Susan says. "It's what you would hear from any male victim of sexual assault. An attack doesn't have to go as far as rape to be traumatic."
Susan is an employee of the school district. She has sat through countless workshops on both appropriate workplace behavior and sexual assault. The district has policies against verbal and physical sexual harassment between employees. "All that has to happen is a person says 'no' or says verbal comments are unwanted, and they're punished," she says.
Susan expected the same to be true for students. Instead, she says that when she brought her son's story to the school's resource officer—a member of the local police force—she was told that what happened to John did not qualify as sexual harassment because he "wasn't touched." The district attorney's office later called to say that the case does not even qualify as harassment, and that John's family cannot press any charges.
The school district did not respond to multiple calls from VICE Sports. Attempts to contact the families of the boys who cornered John have not been answered.
John was touched, Susan says, when one of the boys grabbed at the waistband of her son's shorts. Besides, she is sure that what happened in the locker room would cost any adult his or her job. She still does not understand how the incident does not qualify as sexual harassment.
Right around the time that John was cornered in the locker room, a high school in Sayreville, New Jersey cancelled its football season after reports of sexual harassment and hazing in the locker room. Seven boys were arrested following the reports. Two other high schools soon cancelled their seasons amidst hazing allegations, while a school in Oklahoma expelled four football players in relation to hazing in the locker room. It was the most action schools have collectively taken against hazing in recent memory—many articles explaining the events cited a 2003 case as the last time a school cancelled a season over hazing. These school administrators were making a statement: they are no longer willing to tolerate "boys being boys."
Why, Susan wanted to know, should Douglas County High School be any different?
In Colorado, a state anti-bullying law defines the offense as "any written or verbal expression, or physical or electronic act or gesture, or pattern thereof, that is intended to coerce, intimidate, or cause any physical, mental, or emotional harm to any student." Students also are protected against sex-based harassment under Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972.
Title IX is different from Colorado's anti-bullying law in that it does not matter whether the harasser intends to harm or not, according to the National Women's Law Center. Knowing this, Susan thought her son could build a case that Douglas County High School had violated Title IX by failing to consider the attack on John as sexual harassment.
When she consulted local lawyer Igor Raykin, though, he explained that the incident didn't individually qualify. "With respect to Title IX claims, normally the standard is that the conduct has to be so severe, so pervasive and objectively offensive," he says, "that it deprives a student of access to education.
"If we were talking about boys doing this to a girl….under the threat of physical violence, forcing that girl to take off her pants, I have very little doubt that charges would be filed in that case. It shouldn't be any different with boys and boys."
As Susan started to talk to other parents and co-workers about what happened to John, it became clear that her son's case was not an isolated incident. One male co-worker said that last year there were boys yelling sexual obscenities at other boys in the hallway at DCHS. The man's son, who is a student at DCHS, said the offenders were never punished.
Meanwhile, Susan says the school resource officer cited a previous incident, telling her that during the 2013-2014 school year, a boy ran down the hall "ball tapping" every other boy—that is, grabbing their genitals.
"A parent called in and complained," Susan says. "He said he had to speak with the boys about it." She doubts they were actually punished, but is not sure because disciplinary records are confidential.
Another parent, who agreed to speak to VICE Sports but would not give her name, described more explicit incidents.
"There was a boy last year who didn't comply with those other football players' requests, and he was beaten with a belt," she said. "I can tell you [my child] knows a few football players who say that these boys specifically targeted other boys who they deem [to be] weaker."
It goes well beyond beating them with a belt. "There are numerous incidents of these particular boys holding boys down and shoving their fingers up their rear ends," she said.
When a few of the incidents were reported, she says, the administration did nothing about it. The result? "Boys are fearful to report anything because they're afraid of the retaliation of these other boys," she says. "The other boys feel like they just want to keep it to themselves because they're embarrassed and because they don't think the school will do anything to protect them."
A member of the DCHS staff, who also asked not to be named because he does not want to jeopardize his job, confirmed that he has heard similar reports about the football team.
"I've never seen any evidence," he added, "But, 'I'm the alpha-male, I can get away with this because I play football.' That's pretty much the attitude."
He knows of a boy on one of the teams—he did not say which sport—who was hazed in a non-sexual manner by older teammates. The boy hasn't reported it to the administration because, "he wants to make varsity, and he feels that in order to make varsity you don't report on your teammates," according to the staff member.
Taken together, the above incidents could prove DCHS is violating Title IX by failing to protect students from sexual harassment. "The question is whether it was pervasive in Douglas County schools—whether that was enough to put Douglas County Schools on notice, was commonplace and was likely to recur," Raykin says.
At the very least, the seeming pattern of same-sex harassment supports Raykin's contention that Colorado's anti-bullying laws are largely ineffective. "There's nothing black and white that says okay you can't, and if you do, here's what's going to happen," he says.
Susan has met with Jorge Delgado, the district representative in the office of Colorado Congressman (now Senator) Cory Gardner. They discussed passing a law that would create a more regulated approach to handling cases of sexual assault, even when those cases occur between members of the same sex. Delgado told her that it would be a lot of work, but that he thinks something is possible.
Two pieces of pending federal legislation could also help. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would prohibit retaliation against students who report harassment and protect students who defend other students who are being harassed, while the Safe Schools Improvement Act would require school districts to enforce effective policies that prohibit bullying and harassment.
Even if Susan is unable to get a new state law passed, she says she plans to file a Title IX complaint with the Federal Office of Civil Rights, hoping that it will encourage Douglas County and other school districts to realize that "boys will be boys" is no longer an acceptable reaction to same-sex harassment.
"When something like that happens, I think it's incumbent upon the school to make sure that the victim is getting appropriate support," says Raykin. "Unfortunately, what happens more commonly than one would think is it's the victim who continues to be re-victimized.
"It's a tough area here because we know that this conduct is unacceptable and we know that there has to be some kind of a mechanism to deter it. I don't know if the current laws are sufficient to actually provide some kind of a deterrent mechanism. It may be that this is… the beginning of changes that would make it easier for students to get relief."
In John's case, Susan says, one of the boys who allegedly assaulted him was moved out of the powerlifting class. The other was allowed to stay. John says he was told that if he wasn't comfortable being in class with the second boy, then the school would help him rearrange his schedule. This didn't appeal to John, because he liked his other classes and didn't want to change everything.
John has attempted to return to the class twice, the first time in October. Powerlifting coach Jeff Ketron, who coached DCHS's football team for 16 years, didn't say anything to him. Still, John felt like he was being laughed at. He left.
Just before the holidays, John tried again. This time, Ketron spoke to him. Rather than showing support, Susan says, "the coach told my son he was weak and he wasn't going to sugar coat things for him. He was just simply weak for missing all his weight classes."
"Schools could play a big role in changing people's attitudes and talking about respect," says Lara Kaufmann of the National Women's Law Center. "But it's not happening enough. This continues to be a problem in our culture at every level."
The only person at the school who has supported John, he says, is his basketball coach. By the first week of January, he couldn't handle the stress anymore. He had a meltdown one morning, says Susan, and eventually admitted that the boys at school have continued to bully him.
"They've been kicking him, hitting him, pushing him into the lockers, and spitting in his face," she says.
John tells his mother that the bullying isn't related to the locker room incident. Susan has her doubts. Exasperated with DCHS, she withdrew John from the school that day.
"I hate that, because I feel like I'm running from the problem," she says. "But I'm protecting him, or trying to protect him, because the school won't."