Calhoun ponders one dark night: Police stress care needed in investigation into post-prom party

Calhoun ponders one dark night: Police stress care needed in investigation into post-prom party

May 17th, 2014 by Kate Harrison Belz in Local Regional News

Calhoun High School

Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Times Free Press.

In the halls of Calhoun High School hangs one clock that's different from all the others.

With each tick, red digital numbers count down the days, the hours, the seconds until that day-of-days: Graduation.

This time of year, with any high school during the month of May, the clock ticks off the flurry of events that pile up before summer vacation: The school musical. The spring scrimmage. The glittering, Great Gatsby-themed prom.

The clock ticks on.

But for many at Calhoun High, that momentum pushing students toward that rite of passage has paused.

And it lingers on the night of May 10 - a few hours after prom's twinkling lights were dimmed.

Whatever happened that night in the cabin in the gated-off Coosawattee River Resort near Ellijay, Ga., has cast a shadow that stretches over the last days of Calhoun High's school year.

From an official standpoint, the events of that night remain unclear. All that detectives have said is that they are investigating a rape case.

But in the small town of Calhoun, stories of what occurred at the alcohol-fueled party reverberate, filled with appalling details that have not been confirmed or denied by investigators.

The versions of the story compound on social media, branching into arguments, calls for arrests and cries for prayer. Some take sides. Others plead for the gossip to stop.

One thing is clear: A girl ended up in the hospital after that night, in need of serious medical treatment.

Since then, detectives have questioned at least 25 students about what happened at the cabin, including a group of young men suspected of being involved in an assault.

Some in the community have complained about the pace of the investigation - claiming that it's being slow-walked because of the high-profile status of some of the students allegedly involved and their parents.

But officials in Gilmer County, Ga., which is one county over and home to the cabin in question, brush off such criticism.

Detectives want to cover their bases before pressing any charges, explained Capt. Frank Copeland, spokesman for the Gilmer County Sheriff's Office.

And in a case like this, there are many bases.

Imagine, Copeland said, trying to nail down a time line of what happened at a fratlike party, cobbled together from the hazy recollections of teenagers who were intoxicated.

Add to that the fact that all of these witnesses or potential suspects go to school together and see each other nearly every day. They all have the alliances and enemies and social pressures of high school.

"There are so many people we have to talk to, witnesses and accused. It takes a long time to get it done," Copeland said. "You want to make sure you do a good investigation, you want to make sure that you're not letting anything fall through the cracks. If we did a really fast investigation, we might miss something, or do something wrong."

On top of that, the tremendous volume of social media posts about the allegations has added another layer of questions to wade through.

"Everybody in the three-state area is interested in hearing about it," Copeland said. "All the local people there are joining in, siding up, throwing stuff out."

Still, Copeland says the department expects to have a resolution in the investigation next week.

If charges are pressed, they will be filed in Criminal Court instead of Juvenile Court, officials say. All of those potentially involved were 18 or over, he said. Nearly all of those who attended the party were from Calhoun, except for one person from Dalton, Ga.

While detectives have said the Gilmer County cabin belonged to one student's parents, they would not say whether there was adult supervision at the party.

Back at Calhoun High, teachers and administrators are trying to urge students toward the finish line, continuing with regularly scheduled events and encouraging students not to dwell on or spread rumors, Calhoun City Schools Superintendent Michelle Taylor said.

Students will graduate Friday night.

Taylor has stressed that while the school is cooperating with the investigation, the party had nothing to do with the school.

While some parents have called for students who are accused of being involved in the alleged attack to be suspended or kept from graduating, Taylor said it's too soon to say whether such measures are necessary - especially since no one has been charged.

While Copeland wouldn't comment on the demeanor of the many students that the department has interviewed, he mentioned that plenty of them reminded him of himself at that age: Excited about graduating, enjoying friends, ready for the future.

"We all just wanted to have a good time and celebrate the fact that we've graduated," he recalled. "But I will just say: What people are thinking is OK or acceptable seems to have changed in the 30 years since I was in school."

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.