Steubenville rape: New indictments send message on adult responsibility

The new charges against four school officials, including the superintendent, in the Steubenville rape case include obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence.

Keith Srakocic/AP
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine takes a question at a news conference where he announced indictments against four additional people in relation to the 2012 rape of a high school student on Monday, Nov. 25, 2013 in Steubenville, Ohio.

In a case being watched nationwide, Ohio’s attorney general has put adults on notice: When teens misbehave on your watch, you can and will be held accountable.

A special grand jury handed down four new indictments Monday in the 2012 Steubenville case of a 16-year-old girl who was raped by star high school football players following a night of drinking and partying.

The case drew national attention in part because of the way images of the sexual assault were spread on social media and because of accusations that the community sought to shield the football stars from allegations of wrongdoing.

The new indictments name four school officials – including a superintendent, a principal, and two coaches – for a slew of felony and misdemeanor charges such as obstruction of justice, tampering with evidence, failure to report child abuse, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

“This community has been torn apart by the actions and the bad decisions not of the many – but of the few,” Attorney General Mike DeWine said at a press conference. While this began as a horrible crime, he noted, “it also represents blurred, stretched, and distorted boundaries of right and wrong.”

The case may have begun with the kids, he said, “but it is also just as much about the parents – about the grown-ups, the adults. How do you hold the kids accountable if you don’t hold the adults accountable?” he said.

This is being watched as a test case for “moral responsibilities,” says San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Wendy Patrick. “It sends the message that we can’t hold kids responsible if we don’t hold adults responsible,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you are an actor or an accessory, you have a duty and a responsibility to help find the truth, not tell kids you will hide or tamper with evidence to make it harder for police to do their job,” she adds.

These are issues that need to be taken seriously, not just by parents but by the schools, says Katie Hanna, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence. “We have seen progress on accountability on college campuses, but we need mandatory reporting and more accountability at the high school level,” she says.

The overall message is that we need to find ways to prevent sexual violence from happening, says Ms. Hanna. But “when it does happen,” she adds, “we need to send the message that there will be someone in place who will listen and believe the victims, and there will be consequences in place.”

Hanna notes that this is far from being an unusual case, pointing out that national statistics show that one in four high school girls entering college are likely to have been the victim of sexual violence during their high school years.

This case is providing an important focus on the high school crucible, says Beth Adubato, assistant professor of behavioral science at the New York Institute of Technology.

Many young woman who are victims of sexual assault on college campuses have their education cut short because of the aftermath of their experience – the lack of investigative steps taken by the school administration, the lack of programs in schools that enlighten students on the pernicious problem of date rape or acquaintance rape, and not being believed or supported by the school community, she says.

“If these experiences make it extremely difficult for college-aged students to continue their education, how much more difficult must it be for younger girls?” she adds via e-mail.

In April of 2011, Professor Adubato notes, the US Department of Education sent out a “Dear Colleague Letter,” providing guidance to college administrators on concerns that arise in sexual violence cases.

“Should high school administrations be held to a lesser standard?” she asks, adding, “I think not.”

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