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Steubenville rape trial: Where were 'courageous bystanders'? (+video)

The Steubenville rape trial has highlighted the widespread problem of students not intervening to stop dating and sexual violence among peers. But awareness is growing.

By Staff writer / March 13, 2013

Judge Thomas Lipps arrives to preside over the trial of 16-year-old Ma'lik Richmond and 17-year-old Trent Mays on rape charges in juvenile court on Wednesday in Steubenville, Ohio. Ma'lik and Trent are accused of raping a 16-year-old West Virginia girl last August.

Keith Srakocic/AP

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The trial that started Wednesday in Steubenville, Ohio, has brought to light the disturbing regularity of dating and sexual violence among teenagers and how peers often stand idly by – or, in some cases, even post videos to Facebook.

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In Ohio, a judge will decide if two teenage boys raped a 16-year-old girl after a party. The case garnered international attention when accusations arose about the boys being protected as members of a popular football team. Social media postings suggested that students knew of, and joked about, the alleged attack.

That scenario resonates far beyond Steubenville. Teen-dating abuse – physical, sexual, or psychological – affects 9 percent to 34 percent of adolescents in the United States, according to a recent article published online by the journal Pediatrics.

Fifteen states have now passed laws to require or urge schools to include teen dating violence prevention in the curriculum, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation launched an $18 million initiative last year aimed at preventing teen dating violence among 11- to 14-year olds.

A primary focus is teaching students to be “courageous bystanders” – stepping in either to stop the violence directly or to report it. In that effort, an alliance between a nonprofit and a school district in Austin, Texas, has emerged as a national model.

“There were kids at that [Ohio] party that knew that [something] was wrong… so where are the voices saying, ‘Let her go… Take her home’?” she says. “Most people wouldn’t [rape,] but speaking up when you see something wrong, that’s harder,” says Barri Rosenbluth, director of the Expect Respect program at SafePlace, the nonprofit that has partnered with the Austin Independent School District since 1988.

Students want to do the right thing, she says, but adults and trained peers need to help them “figure out what gets in the way,” and how to overcome it.

Expect Respect has offered training to educators around the country, but not many school districts have taken on the issue of dating violence in a comprehensive way.

Eight out of 10 school counselors surveyed said their school has no protocol to respond to such violence, and 9 out of 10 said there had been no training in the past two years to assist victims, the Pediatrics article reports. Yet these victims are at more risk for experiencing mental-health problems or engaging in binge drinking, fights, suicide attempts, and sexual activity.

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