Adult charged in Steubenville rape case. Will schools get the message?

The technology director at Steubenville City Schools pleaded not guilty to charges related to the teen rape case: tampering with evidence, obstruction of justice, and lying under oath.

Jefferson County Sheriffs Dept./AP
This Oct. 7, 2013 booking photo provided by the Jefferson County Sheriffs Deptartment shows William Rhinaman, technology director at Steubenville City Schools.

The first adult to face criminal charges related to the teen rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, appeared in Jefferson County Court Wednesday afternoon. William Rhinaman, technology director at Steubenville City Schools, is charged with tampering with evidence, obstructing justice, and lying under oath. He was freed on $25,000 bond after pleading not guilty.

Charges against others could yet come, as a grand jury continues to investigate whether anyone broke laws in the aftermath of the case, in which two boys were found guilty last March of raping a 16-year-old girl about seven months before.

The case, in which images of the girl circulated on social media after the rapes, raised questions about whether some students and school officials tried to protect the boys because of their status as football players.

“Our goal remains to uncover the truth, and our investigation continues,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said in a statement Oct. 7.

The indictment offers another opportunity for the Steubenville case to spark commitment in schools to step up training so that adults know their responsibilities, and better yet, take a preventive approach to teen sexual violence, advocates and academic experts say.

“Sexual violence happens frequently, and having the support of the attorney general, having that grand jury… sends a strong message that it will be taken seriously and there will be strong consequences” when school officials violate laws in how they respond, says Katie Hanna, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, based in Cleveland.

The Alliance is promoting an upcoming training for Ohio school athletics staff called Coaching Boys into Men, a curriculum developed by Futures Without Violence in San Francisco.  The goal, Ms. Hanna says, is to “build a network of coaches around the state who say, ‘We don’t stand for that [sexual violence]. We know the victims are more important.’ ” 

It’s important to highlight students and coaches who do the right thing, Hanna says. For instance, in Circleville, Ohio, a football player recently told an assistant coach that he overheard other players talking about a video of sex acts with a teen girl who didn’t know a recording was being made, according to the Columbus Dispatch. The school reported it to law enforcement and two football players were charged.

Nearly 1 in 10 youths ages 14 to 21 reported having forced some type of sexual contact, ranging from kissing to intercourse, on another person in their lifetime, according to a US survey of just over 1,000 people, published by JAMA Pediatrics. 

As with bullying and other forms of violence, young people are not very likely to report sexual violence to school officials, either because they fear retribution or because they don’t believe the adults will respond effectively, says Usha Tummala-Narra, a psychologist, trauma expert, and professor at Boston College.

While some adults will take the initiative to earn the trust of students and help them, many others “are not necessarily open to hearing about abuse or violence,” she says, not because they don’t care, but because “they are often not given resources to know what to do with that information.”

Criminal indictments like the one in Steubenville can send a message, but they won’t change things unless they are accompanied by more support for educators, Professor Tummala-Narra says.

The Steubenville Board of Education said in an Oct. 8 statement that it would “continue to cooperate fully with law enforcement authorities in their on-going investigation” and that “Mr. Rhinaman will be placed on a leave of absence effective immediately, pending the outcome of the criminal case.”

The indictment alleges that Rhinaman tampered with evidence beginning the night of the rapes, which occurred after a party that involved heavy drinking, including by the victim, who became incapacitated. It also says he tried to stand in the way of an official’s work and tried to stop the prosecution of someone in the case.

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.

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