Commentary Sexual Health

Could New Steubenville Indictments Send a Message to Communities About Dealing With Rape?

Martha Kempner

Four more adults were indicted Monday for what they did—or didn’t do—after the rape of a 16-year-old girl last August. It will be interesting to see if going after the adults who facilitate these situations will be the lesson that communities need to start paying attention to our nation's rape problem.

Four more adults in Steubenville, Ohio, were indicted Monday for what they did—or didn’t do—after the rape of a 16-year-old girl in August 2012. The two boys who committed the rape were sentenced in juvenile court in March, but Ohio’s attorney general promised to continue investigating the community’s reaction to the events and what appeared to be attempts by school officials to cover it up.

Stories of high school parties turning into scenes of drunk teens and forced sex are all too common, as are communities that blame the victim and rally around rapists (often valuable members of a school’s sports team). As we watch these indictments play out, it will be interesting to see if going after the adults who facilitate these situations—either before or after they occur—will be the lesson that communities need to learn to break out of this vicious cycle in which young men never learn what rape is and why it’s so wrong.

On the night of August 11, 2012, after the Steubenville High School football team’s second scrimmage of the season, many students from the town and surrounding areas gathered at the home of a volunteer football coach for a party that offered beer, wine, rum, whiskey, and vodka to its adolescent guests. Among the over 50 young people to arrive were two star football players, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, as well as a 16-year-old girl from the neighboring town of Weirton, West Virginia.

Details that have since emerged suggest that the young girl was drunk when she left the party with Mays, Richmond, and two other football players. Witnesses at the second party they went to described her as out of it and even asleep. The three then left the second party and went to yet another. Videos, text messages, and accounts from witnesses suggest that the teen girl was raped multiple times, in more than one location, over the course of several hours. There are reports that she was carried around with one boy holding her ankles and another her wrists, that she was urinated on by party-goers, that Mays took video of himself violating her with his fingers in the back of a car, and that at the third party, he attempted to force his penis into her mouth despite the fact that she appeared to be unconscious or nearly unconscious in a video taken by a friend.

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Though the details of the rape are shocking, what caught national attention was the role of social media. The town, and even the victim herself, learned of the incident through a series of posts on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. There was a picture of her topless and looking unconscious, a number of tweets that included the words “drunk” and “rape,” and a YouTube video that was tweeted numerous times in which a Steubenville graduate noted that the “song of the night is definitely ‘Rape Me’ by Nirvana,” and that “some people deserve to be peed on.” Mays was one of the many people who shared that last tweet.

The fact that young people who witnessed these incidents seemed proud of what happened was one of the things that made this case stand out. One local crime blogger, who took screen shots of these posts before teens could delete them, blamed the football culture in the community and urged police to take action. After the event she wrote, “What normal person would even consider that posting the brutal rape of a young girl is something that should be shared with their peers? Do they think because they are Big Red players that the rules don’t apply to them?” She added that the case should be a “slam dunk” because the perpetrators and their friends recorded it for the police to see.

Unfortunately, as we all know, that’s not how it played out. The videos and other posts were deleted, and police were, at least initially, unable to find the evidence they needed. Police seized 15 phones and two iPads but could not recover any of the videos or pictures in which the actual rape was documented, though they did find two naked pictures of the teen girl on Mays’ phone. The young woman, who could not remember what had happened to her, waited over a day and showered before she was examined at a hospital. That examination yielded no evidence. More disturbing, however, was that witnesses weren’t talking.

This is where the now-indicted adults come in. They are accused of helping to destroy evidence and failing to report the incident. Among the four people indicted Monday is Steubenville City Schools Superintendent Michael McVey, who faces three felony counts: one of tampering with evidence and two of obstructing justice. He also faces two misdemeanor counts: making a false statement and obstructing official business. Three other adults in the school system were also charged with misdemeanors. Matt Bellardine, the volunteer assistant football coach, who is said to have hosted, or at least allowed his home to be used for, one of the parties that night, was charged with allowing underage drinking, obstructing official business, making a false statement, and contributing to the unruliness or delinquency of a child. Lynnett Gorman, an elementary school principal, and Seth Fluharty, a wrestling coach, were charged with failure to report child abuse.

These indictments come a month after two others were handed down. In October, William Rhinaman, who serves as the director of technology for Steubenville City Schools, was indicted on felony charges of tampering with evidence, obstruction of justice, obstructing official business, and perjury. His 20-year-old daughter, Hannah Rhinaman, who also worked for the school district, was indicted on two counts of receiving stolen property and one count of grand theft auto.

The details on what each of these adults did to earn these indictments are not yet clear, but taken together it seems there was an attempt by some in the school system to cover up the events of August 11and protect the students who committed the crime.

In his press conference Monday, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said it was time to make adults responsible as well. “This began as the rape of a 16-year-old girl, a horrible crime of violence. But it also represents blurred, stretched, and distorted boundaries of right and wrong,” he said. “While this started out being about the kids, it is also just as much about the parents, about the grown-ups, about the adults. How do you hold kids accountable if you don’t hold the adults accountable?”

This is a good start. As I wrote recently in an article inspired by the case of yet another high school girl who was raped by a star athlete and then spurned by her entire community, we have a rape problem in this country. Somehow, we have raised a whole lot of young people who do not know what consent is, cannot recognize that someone who is passed out is incapable of giving consent, and seem bizarrely proud of actions that should be instantly identifiable as both illegal and immoral.

One of the ways we have created this environment is through our reactions—as adults and as a society—to rape and its victims. We instantly question what she was doing wrong and how she got herself into this situation in the first place. We instantly question whether a woman is lying to cover up her own bad decisions. Nate Hubbard, a former Steubenville football player and one of the school’s 19 coaches, expressed this common sentiment to the New York Times in January: “The rape was just an excuse, I think. What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that? She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it.”

Even members of the media seemed to side with the young men in this case. Reporting on the guilty verdict, CNN reporter Poppy Harlow showed a great deal of sympathy for the perpetrators on the day they were found guilty of rape. “These two young men who had such promising futures—star football players, very good students—literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart,” she said. Her statement makes it seem as if they were passive participants in these events, and not young adults who made a number of very bad decisions. Notably, she did not express similar sympathy for the victim in this case, whose life also fell apart.

Of course, if the actions that led to their indictments are true, the school officials may have done more than anyone else to perpetuate this culture of rape and the idea that “boys will be boys” and sex without consent is just a minor teenage indiscretion. Hopefully, the charges against these school employees will send a message to any other adults in a family or community who find themselves dealing with rape, and they will think twice before declaring it no big deal, assuming it was her fault, or attempting to sweep it under the rug.

I also hope that the next message in the form of criminal investigations (and possibly indictments) goes to the students who watched, cheered, and posted about it on the Internet. Via the hacker group Anonymous, a 12-minute video of the incident has surfaced, and the details are just awful. Fellow partygoers can be heard in the background calling the victim deader than JFK, OJ’s wife, Caylee Anthony, and Trayvon Martin, amongst others. One teen, identified as a recent graduate and former baseball player, is heard on the video saying, “She is so raped.” One of his friends says, “That’s not cool, bro. That’s like rape. It is rape. They raped her.” Then the first teen says, “They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson” and “They raped her more than the Duke lacrosse team.”

William McCafferty, the Steubenville police chief, said this of the event to the New York Times: “The thing I found most disturbing about this is that there were other people around when this was going on. … Nobody had the morals to say, ‘Hey, stop it, that isn’t right.’ If you could charge people for not being decent human beings, a lot of people could have been charged that night.”

I couldn’t agree more. We can’t charge people for being awful, but we have to teach them to recognize awful and behave better. In our fight against bullying, we are aiming not just at the bullies but at those who witness such interactions. Programs teach young people about bystanders, address why bystanders often mistakenly feel that they shouldn’t or can’t intervene, and then tell kids that they can step in directly to discourage bullies or go get help. It looks like we have to start doing the same type of intervention around rapes at parties or social events. If one—just one—of the athletes at the party had decided “This is wrong” and pulled his buddies off the girl, she might have been spared. And we know that everyone at that party had a cellphone; if, instead of taking pictures, they had just dialed 9-1-1, things might have been very different.

We have a lot of work to do to break out of our rape culture: We need to teach young people about consent, we need to help them understand that young women (or men) who are on the verge of unconsciousness cannot consent, and we need to do a better job explaining that rape is always wrong. Clearly, we need to teach these exact same issues to adults. While I always prefer education before the fact to punishment after, maybe a few more indictments of the adults and young people surrounding a rape is where we need to start. Maybe it’s what communities need in order to start paying attention.

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