Steubenville rape trial: Where were 'courageous bystanders'?

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.

Keith Srakocic/AP
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.

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.

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.

Teaching through plays and poetry

In one of Expect Respect’s programs, separate groups of boys and girls meet with a licensed counselor during the school day if they have experienced dating violence or witnessed it at home. Having a supportive peer group reduced violence among the most vulnerable students, Ms. Rosenbluth says, citing a preliminary study.

A decade ago, Expect Respect also began asking student groups around the city to develop projects to educate peers about dating violence. Each year, a citywide theater group writes a new play about healthy relationships.

“We were able to really see a shift of making it cool to be standing up for healthy relationships,” because of students delivering the message through everything from poetry to hip-hop performances, Rosenbluth says.

For example, a group of students trained to educate peers about bullying and teen dating violence at Austin’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy high school noticed recently that one of their members had a black eye. They immediately asked her if it happened in a relationship. It was actually the result of a rugby accident, she told them, but they were the only people in school who expressed concern about it.

These students “get the message that it is their business and it’s OK to check in when they see someone sad or hurt, [rather than just] worry or gossip,” says Randy Randolph, Expect Respect’s prevention manager.

[Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly identified Mr. Randolph.]

Austin has changed its policies, too. In 2004, it adopted measures targeting relationship abuse among students. One provision allows a victim to request that an abuser be made to keep his or her distance during the school day – sort of a school version of a restraining order. Before that, “the victim had no rights or way to complain” if the abuser was not caught in the act and disciplined by school administrators, Rosenbluth says.

Rising awareness

The policy became a model for a state law in Texas, which in 2007 became one of the first states to require or urge schools to include teen dating violence prevention in the curriculum. Now 15 states have such laws, according to the group Futures Without Violence in San Francisco.

In Massachusetts, the parents of Lauren Astley are urging more prevention efforts to honor the memory of their daughter – murdered by her former high school boyfriend several weeks after their graduation from Wayland High School in 2011.

They started a foundation and are hoping that Massachusetts legislators will consider requiring schools to offer 10 to 20 lessons on healthy relationships for each grade level in middle and high schools.

Society needs to better “equip all young people to face the terrible pain of breaking up,” says Malcolm Astley, Lauren’s father. Nathaniel Fujita was sentenced to life in prison for premeditated murder after Lauren broke off their relationship.

Boys especially “are not being trained nearly enough in being comfortable talking about relationships…. Boys tend to shut down and … not talk about the inner struggles, challenges, pains, and vulnerabilities,” Mr. Astley says.

The Wayland community will have an opportunity to confront relationship violence Friday night during discussion after the play “You the Man,” by Add Verb Productions and the University of New England. The one-actor show depicts different bystanders wrestling with how they should respond to signs of unhealthy relationships.

Surveys of “You the Man” audiences in 2007-08 found that 83 percent learned how to identify the warning signs of dating abuse and sexual violence, and 87 percent learned where to go for help if they or someone they know is in danger or has been victimized.

Starting in middle school

Middle school is not too soon to take the issue on, experts say.

Some 15 percent of seventh-graders from across of the US had experienced physical dating violence, and 37 percent had witnessed boys or girls being violent toward someone they were dating in the past six months, according to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Additionally, 37 percent had experienced psychological dating violence, and 31 percent had been the victim of dating aggression through electronic devices.

The foundation's resulting Start Strong initiative – in cities such as Boston, Indianapolis, Austin, and Los Angeles – educates young people, both in and out of school, about healthy relationships. It also reaches out to “teen influencers” such as parents, teachers, and mentors. Three-quarters of the seventh-graders surveyed did talk with their parents about dating and teen violence, which can reduce the risk for experiencing such violence.

In February, the US Department of Education sent a letter to all state school chiefs requesting immediate action to reduce gender-based violence in schools. It also released a new toolkit outlining what schools and communities can do and a training module for school counselors, nurses, and psychologists.

The Centers for Disease Control also offer resources online.

“Like bullying, teen dating violence has far-reaching consequences for the health and life outcomes of victims,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “We need to do everything we can to make sure all students are safe.”

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