published Saturday, May 24th, 2014

Calhoun High School students stand up for right as cheers for victim mark graduation ceremony

Students await graduation at Calhoun High School on May 23, 2014 in Calhoun, Ga. Blue ribbons were worn in support of one Calhoun senior who was allegedly raped by three of her classmates.
Students await graduation at Calhoun High School on May 23, 2014 in Calhoun, Ga. Blue ribbons were worn in support of one Calhoun senior who was allegedly raped by three of her classmates.
Photo by Maura Friedman /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Students await graduation at Calhoun High School on May 23, 2014, in Calhoun, Ga. Blue ribbons were worn in support of one Calhoun senior who was allegedly raped by three of her classmates.
    Photo by Maura Friedman /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

CALHOUN, Ga. — Of all the students who heard their names announced on the Calhoun High School football field Friday night, one name garnered the most attention.

The name, that of the alleged victim of a rape that occurred two weeks ago at a party after the North Georgia school's prom, was followed by cheers -- louder, more enthusiastic cheers than anything else heard during the school's graduation ceremony.

And then, after the sign of support for the victim, more seniors' names were called. And those names were followed by cheers, albeit not quite as loud.

The whole ceremony felt so ... normal.

And yet it wasn't. It couldn't be. Three names were missing, three senior male students who Calhoun City Schools had identified as suspects in the rape.

The crime occurred in a gated community in Ellijay, Ga. The victim told police that multiple men raped her.

Since then, rumors have swept through this small town, home to one of the best high school football teams in the state. But on Friday night, the field was reserved for students moving on to the next chapters in their lives.

But how those lives have been shaped by the events of May 10 lingered on that field Friday. That field was home to much support for the victim. In addition to the cheers when she crossed the graduation stage, many students wore blue ribbons pinned to their gowns, another emblem by which to honor the victim.

But the support for the victim could have been even louder. Earlier this week, a group of students and parents who have been protesting the rape suspects discussed plans to stage another protest at the graduation.

However, a family friend of the victim told the group online that the victim did not want them causing a scene at the ceremony.

Tiffany Barringer and Dakota Mashburn said they protested last week because they feared that the case would get "swept under the rug." Mashburn is a student at Calhoun High while Barringer is the mother of a girl who attends the school.

The group's most recent protest on Sunday featured about 30 people, Mashburn said. They planned to stage a protest again at the graduation because they thought the three suspects would be allowed to walk with the rest of the senior class.

But on Tuesday, Calhoun City Schools announced that the three student suspects would not be allowed at graduation because their presence might cause "a substantial disruption."

Barringer said the group now plans to protest at 5 tonight outside the North Georgia Trade and Convention Center, where Southeast Whitfield High School will hold its graduation. One of their seniors, Rhett Harper, was at the Ellijay cabin the night of the apparent rape.

After news broke about the incident, Harper's name was prominent on social media as well as in reports spreading among Calhoun residents. But on Friday afternoon, Harper's attorney said his client is a witness, not a suspect. Sam Sanders, of the McCamy Law Firm in Dalton, said the lead detective has assured him that Harper will not be charged.

"I have thoroughly reviewed the pertinent evidence in the case and can state unequivocally that Rhett had no involvement with any alleged sexual assault and is not being investigated for committing any crime," Sanders wrote on his Facebook page.

Capt. Frank Copeland, spokesman for the Gilmer County Sheriff's Office, did not return a call or an email seeking comment on Friday.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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