In Steubenville Rape Case, a Lesson for Adults
A year ago this week, Michael McVey, the superintendent of schools in Steubenville, Ohio, sat in a conference room down the hall from his office and said he knew none of the details of Aug. 11, 2012, the night a 16-year-old girl was raped by two Steubenville High football players at a series of parties on a hot summer night.
Nope, he said, he didn’t know much, aside from the rumors that had been swirling around the football-crazy town for months. He told me and a colleague that he had not spoken with any of the students thought to be involved in the event because it hadn’t taken place on school grounds or during the school year. Besides, he said, he usually let the football coach take care of that sort of thing.
Basically, he was saying, it was none of his business. So he stayed out of it.
That all changed drastically Monday, when Ohio’s attorney general, Mike DeWine, made it McVey’s business.
McVey was one of four adults charged with crimes this week as a result of an investigation into the Steubenville rape case, in which the star quarterback and his favorite wide receiver were convicted of raping a teenager who had been too drunk to resist them. Other Steubenville athletes had videotaped the event or had taken photos of it. Several even sent those photos to friends and posted images from the night on Twitter. But none alerted the police.
Even if the latest indictments do not produce convictions, DeWine’s aggressive stance is an important moment. By holding adults accountable, prosecutors might persuade school administrators and coaches to make it their business to tell the police when they hear students or athletes have done something illegal. And maybe the police will be more diligent about investigating such complaints.
In Steubenville, the victim’s parents eventually came forward with evidence that pushed the authorities to begin an inquiry, but even then, many of the people in town refused to tell investigators what they knew.
McVey — who told me he had never seen any information about the rape on social media, though it was still available on the Internet as we spoke — is facing several felony charges, including obstructing justice and tampering with evidence, as a result of a grand jury’s inquiry into a possible cover-up of the rape. One of those charges is related to the case of a 14-year-old girl who told police she was raped by Steubenville baseball players in April 2012. No charges were filed.
The events involving Steubenville athletes led to a host of other charges: A former football coach was indicted on several misdemeanor counts, including allowing underage drinking and making false statements to public officials, and an elementary school principal and a wrestling coach were indicted on charges of failure to report child abuse or neglect.
Yet another adult, the school district’s director of information technology, was indicted last month on obstruction, perjury and tampering charges.
Of course, the two football players in the case are the ones ultimately responsible for their actions, but it’s not as simple as it seems. Someone provided the alcohol to underage students that fueled the entire evening. Some parents were naïve enough, or permissive enough, to let it all happen under their noses. In the aftermath, some coaches and school officials decided that the reputation of the school and the football team should trump public safety. Every adult who heard the rumors of the rape and didn’t report them to the police was complicit in covering it up.
Now some of those people, McVey included, could pay for those decisions, as they should. Teenagers do not operate in a vacuum. Adults must take responsibility for watching over them or, at the very least, try to right a wrong after the fact. But many of the adults I spoke to in Steubenville feigned ignorance about the rape, including the high school’s principal and football coach, or blamed the victim for what happened.
Robert D. Laurino, the first assistant prosecutor in Essex County, N.J., knows firsthand what can happen to a community when it closes up to try to protect its own. He was a prosecutor in a 1989 case in Glen Ridge, N.J., in which a group of high school athletes gang raped a mentally disabled girl in the basement of one of their homes. Rumors of the rape spread across the town, but it took weeks for anyone to report the crime to the police.
The delays in the Glen Ridge case were similar to what happened in the Penn State child sexual abuse case, and it seems to be what happened in Steubenville, Laurino said. People who should have known better turned a blind eye or didn’t want to be responsible for tainting an athletic program or a community, or embarrassing a player.
Laurino, like DeWine, thinks adults should be taken to task for that. When teenagers behave badly, it is the adults who sometimes have to protect a community’s children from themselves. Maybe the threat of incarceration — which is what those indicted in the Steubenville case are facing — will persuade other adults to take that role more seriously.
“It would definitely send a message,” Laurino said.
But maybe not.
High school athletes being accused of sexual assault isn’t a new phenomenon. A year after the Steubenville case became public, an eerily similar event put Maryville, Mo., in the national news. And those are only two high-profile cases we know about, since many events most likely go unreported. But whenever a new one makes headlines, we realize how little has changed.
The Glen Ridge rape happened nearly a quarter-century ago, but about 10 years after the town had faded from the headlines, Laurino said he received a call from Sheila Byron-Lagattuta, the lead investigator in the case.
She told him about a Halloween show that had been held at Glen Ridge High School, in which one student had dressed up as Barbie, another as Ken. In their skit, Ken pretended to molest Barbie in front of a packed auditorium.
What did the teachers and school administrators do? Nothing, Laurino was told. The adults in the room simply walked out, passing up a golden opportunity to teach an auditorium full of teenagers what it means to be respectful, to press upon them a sense of morality.
“Instead of stopping it,” Laurino said, “they just turned away.”
In Ohio, the adults have been forced — again — to look. Maybe this time, everyone will learn a lasting lesson.