School officials charged in aftermath of Steubenville rape case plead not guilty

Four adults, including the school superintendent, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges stemming from an investigation into the Steubenville rape case. Allegations range from obstruction to failure to report child abuse.

Michael D. McElwain/Steubenville Herald-Star/AP
Steubenville City Schools Superintendent Michael McVey (r.) listens as his attorney Charles Bean speaks during a court hearing Friday, Dec. 13, 2013, in Steubenville, Ohio, where McVey pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from a grand jury's investigation.

Michael McVey, the superintendent of Steubenville City Schools in Ohio, and three others pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that emerged from a special grand jury investigation into the August 2012 rape of a teenage girl.

Two high-school students were convicted in juvenile court of the 2012 rape that gained worldwide media attention, and since then, six adults have been charged with crimes ranging from obstruction of justice to failure to report child abuse.

Superintendent McVey could serve nearly six years' imprisonment if found guilty on all five counts, including a felony charge of tampering with evidence.

Matthew Belardine, a former assistant high school football coach, faces nearly two years in prison for charges that include allowing underage drinking and obstructing official business.

Seth Fluharty, a teacher and assistant wrestling coach, and Lynett Gorman, an elementary school principal, could serve 30 days each if found guilty of failing to report child abuse or neglect.

Ms. Gorman is accused of failing to report information related to an alleged sexual assault in April 2012, an incident that police asked the Attorney General's Office to investigate after the assault was reported in September 2012, says Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. 

McVey’s charges span from April 5, 2012, to Nov. 19, 2013, encompassing both the April and August incidents.

 “We are confident that we are going to prevail in these cases and prove they’re unfounded,” said McVey's attorney, Charles Bean, on Friday, the Associated Press reported.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has used the case to highlight the responsibility of adults to be more alert to what’s going on among young people and to report sexual violence, rather than condone the casual attitude that emerged on social media posts by some of the teens involved in or witness to the rapes.

While acknowledging that the adults charged are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, Mr. DeWine wrote in an op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer Thursday: “What happened here is a lesson for all of us. We must treat rape and sexual assault as the serious crime of violence that it is, and when it is investigated, everyone has an obligation to help find the truth – not hide, tamper with, obstruct, or destroy the truth. And each one of us is accountable for our actions – online or otherwise.”

Advocacy groups hope that national attention to the case will create a “teachable moment,” but so far, rape crisis centers around Ohio “have not seen an increase from schools saying, ‘We want to do something different,’ ” says Katie Hanna, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence. “We can provide those tools and skills to help people know what to do when a rape happens … and to work to get to that point of ‘Let’s prevent this from happening in the first place.’ ”

The four who had hearings Friday are free without bond. Gorman’s trial is set for Jan. 7. McVey, Mr. Belardine, and Mr. Fluharty are all scheduled for pretrial hearings Jan. 17.

McVey, Fluharty, and Gorman were all put on leave by the school district when the indictments were announced in November, but on Dec. 9, Fluharty and Gorman returned to work. “The two employees have good work records and are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” said a statement from the Steubenville Board of Education.

Earlier this year, the school system’s technology director, William Rhinaman, pleaded not guilty to various obstruction and tampering charges. He has retired. His daughter, Hannah Rhinaman, who worked for the district, was also charged for crimes not directly related to the rape. They are expected to go to trial Feb. 20.

School boards have to make difficult decisions about whether to place an accused employee on leave – with or without pay – when an investigation and trial could go on for a long time, says Hollie Reedy, chief legal counsel for the Ohio School Boards Association. “This is a developing situation and the district’s response is going to have to develop along with whatever happens.”

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