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Dietrich school superintendent to quit, judge in locker room case investigated

March 14, 2017 GMT

DIETRICH — Fallout from the Dietrich High School locker room incident exploded last week with the resignation of the school’s superintendent at the end of the contract year and the launch of a state investigation into the judge who presided over the case.

Superintendent Ben Hardcastle announced his resignation hours after the Idaho Judicial Council released a statement saying it would investigate a complaint against District Judge Randy Stoker.

Hardcastle and the district have come under fire for their handling of an October 2015 attack in a Dietrich football locker room, where white players were accused of targeting a black, mentally disabled football player. Both an attorney general’s investigation and Hardcastle’s own investigating showed a culture of bullying and possible racism that was widespread on the football team.

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The case sparked national outrage, especially after Stoker sentenced 19-year-old John R.K Howard, the only person charged criminally as an adult in the case, to probation on Feb. 24. Witnesses said Howard kicked a coat hanger into the victim’s buttocks.

The council’s investigation was triggered by Caldwell teacher Monica Ryan, whose online petition calling for Stoker’s removal from the bench has gathered more than 170,000 signatures. The judge was not immediately available to comment on the investigation.

While Ryan’s petition focused on the leniency of the sentence, Stoker has also faced criticism from groups including the NAACP after saying he didn’t think race played a role in the incident. Witnesses say players and coaches often called the victim racist names including “grape soda,” “watermelon” and “fried chicken.”

The council is the state’s top judicial oversight board, with broad powers to investigate complaints against judges. If the council finds evidence of wrongdoing, its investigation will be turned over to the Supreme Court, which has the power to censure, discipline or remove the judge. Robert Hamlin, the council’s former executive director, will investigate the complaint.

Tony Cantrill, the council’s current executive director, recused himself from Stoker’s investigation because of a conflict of interest. He said all verified complaints undergo an initial review to see if there is any substance to the complaint. But where that investigation could lead is unclear. The judicial council’s job is to investigate judges over misconduct and not to second-guess their courtroom decisions.

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In Stoker’s case, Hamlin will conduct that initial review and share his findings with the seven-member council, which consists of Idaho Chief Justice Roger Burdick, two lawyers and four lay representatives. If the council decides a judge violated any ethical rules, a more in-depth investigation would take place, and the judge would be given a chance to respond to the complaint.

In her online petition, Ryan called on Stoker’s removal citing a judge’s duty to “reject plea deals if the proposed reduced charges and sentencing does not match the crime.”

Meanwhile, Hardcastle says he’ll resign at the end of the schoolyear.

“I have an opportunity that is in the best interest of my family, and the Dietrich School Board has graciously accepted my resignation effective at the end of this contract year,” he wrote in a statement to the Times-News.

Hardcastle’s resignation statement didn’t mention the locker room incident, and he didn’t respond to follow-up messages seeking clarification on his resignation.

“I am extremely grateful to the community of Dietrich for the great trust that you have shown me in allowing me to serve the school district,” he wrote.

The Associated Press reported last week that Hardcastle began his own investigation of the locker room incident before notifying the sheriff’s office. On Tuesday, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told the Times-News the superintendent’s investigation didn’t influence the criminal probe.

A former Teacher of the Year in Texas, Hardcastle quit the Gooding School District in 2015 after a spat with that district’s superintendent over his accusations of plagiarism in the district’s handbook. He joined the Dietrich school district as its top administrator months later.

Hardcastle is one of several Dietrich district employees named as defendants in an ongoing civil suit brought by the victim, who is seeking $10 million in damages. The victim’s parents referred questions about their reaction to the Stoker investigation and Hardcastle’s resignation to their attorney. He did not return messages seeking comment.

Attorneys in the civil case have until next month to gather evidence. There have been no settlement talks, and the case is expected to go to trial this summer.