New charges in Steubenville case aimed at holding adults accountable
Mike DeWine was driving back from Steubenville on Monday afternoon, back from the old steel town in the eastern part of Ohio where a high school sexual assault – the kind that everyone knows occur too often in too many places – had blown into an international story over the past year.
DeWine is the veteran attorney general for the state of Ohio. His office prosecuted two high school football players, Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, back in March. They were found guilty of sexually abusing a passed out 16-year-old girl from West Virginia who'd come across the Ohio River to attend a Steubenville High School party. Mays and Richmond currently sit in a youth correction center.
Those criminal cases were just the first step, however. Monday was the rest of it for DeWine, who commissioned a special grand jury to uncover everything that could be uncovered – who else knew, who else should've known, who supplied the booze, who hid from their responsibilities, who didn't report a crime?
It was those questions, as much as the actual crime that tore Steubenville apart and still divides so many. The boys were part of the city's powerhouse – and believed to be protected – high school football program (the Big Red play Friday in the state Division IV semifinals). The girl was just some girl. Kids from important families were involved. Social media cast a wide net of disrespect. Hacker groups and bloggers attempted vigilante justice.
Fingers were pointed. Rumors were many; facts few. The outside outrage was incalculable.
The grand jury met 18 times and heard from more than 100 witnesses during the course of months of investigating. On Monday, DeWine's office charged four adults with crimes stemming from the case.
They join two others previously charged and, DeWine said, should wrap the case unless additional information is uncovered.
Superintendent Michael McVey, 50, faces the most serious allegations, including felony obstruction and tampering with evidence charges. He was also accused of obstructing official business and falsification, both misdemeanors. He could face up to five years in prison. There was also an elementary school principal and a teacher, charged with failing to report suspected child abuse. Each was a mandatory reporter and required to turn over such information.
Finally, a volunteer football coach, whose home was the site of the party, was hit with misdemeanor charges for allowing underage drinking and making false statements to investigators.
DeWine held a news conference in Steubenville before heading back to Columbus. Asked how the reaction was in town, he sighed and said it was split.
"I was told outside there were some protests in favor of Big Red," DeWine told Yahoo Sports. "It looked like high school kids. And that's fine. School pride.
"Some of our agents over there have said the community has been very divided, some very supportive of the school itself. Some are not."
The entire story has been ugly, bringing out the worst in many from all sides. DeWine is still troubled by the actions of many. He notes some avoided charges by not technically violating Ohio criminal codes, yet acted "boorish, rude and hostile."
"Some adults were more concerned about protecting certain kids and not worrying about the victim," DeWine said. "The victim seemed to be the last person considered."
Yet that wasn't the overarching point DeWine was hoping would get out to the public on Monday. While Steubenville will continue to buzz about this person or that story, the rest of the country will move on.
It's easy to further demonize Steubenville and the people of Jefferson County as uncaring or unconcerned or simply criminal in their conduct because of an unholy devotion to high school football. It tends to make everyone else feel superior. That discounts the many locals however, who, feel exactly the opposite and were as disgusted as anyone over this case.
Plus, it would miss the most important point.
"If you think this is a unique problem to Steubenville, you are dead wrong," DeWine said. "It's applicable to any state, any community in this nation."
And maybe Monday's far-reaching charges are the next small step in changing that.
DeWine's message is one that gets echoed by experts in preventing sexual assault, that the potential for these crimes to occur has to be on the radar of nearly everyone.
It's taken years, but the country has come to consider drunk driving a highly preventable act. And it's not just by simply lecturing people not to do it, or even prosecuting those that do.
It is also by educating and empowering onlookers to step in and stop someone who is intoxicated from getting behind the wheel to take time to perhaps drive them home safely, to form elaborate systems to make transportation available or even designate someone at the start of the night to be in charge of the task of watching out for everyone.
Furthermore, from bar owners to party hosts to adults asked to buy booze for a teen, there is an understanding that they can be held responsible for the actions of someone who winds up over-served.
Mainly, there is no shame in speaking up. You can be a hero for stepping in. Friends don't let friends …
And not doing so, just shrugging off what might happen – saying it's out of your hands – can lead to community scorn and legal action. Everything has changed.
There is no such movement – or at least not much of a movement – when it comes to preventing sexual assault, even though there is virtually no one who isn't opposed to and outraged by such crimes.
"It can't just be about the individuals involved," said Katie Hanna of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence.
In Steubenville, on the very night in question, high school kids literally ripped car keys out of the hands of intoxicated friends and set up a car pool to assure everyone got home "safe."
Stopping drunk driving, even for short distances in a relatively small community was an accepted part of life. They then did absolutely nothing when a clearly intoxicated girl was being carried around at late-night parties, left to puke in the street, or even as witnesses saw her being violated.
One guy even filmed one of the acts. Others joked about it on social media and in crude videos they then posted on YouTube, like the entire world would share in the humor.
"We're talking about basic human decency," DeWine said. "Why wasn't there anybody there to help her? Why didn't anyone come forward to stop this? That was with juveniles.
"Now we're talking about the adults," DeWine continued. "If there was underage drinking in your house, why didn't you stop it? If you were a mandatory reporter and you did not report child abuse, why not? If you strip it down, the law isn't requiring anything your conscience isn't already requiring."
The challenge is daunting, however. Hanna applauded the work of the grand jury, if only because it could increase a discussion that these are broad community issues.
"I think it leaves an opportunity for schools to do more prevention and ask, 'How can we address this issue and how can it be taken seriously?' " Hanna said. "The goal is we get to the point where someone says, 'I want to be like that guy who did something and stopped something from happening.' "
That requires education, not just for adults, but for the most at-risk group for sexual assault – high school and college-aged kids. Yet where communities have accepted, and even encouraged, schools, churches, coaches and organizations to boldly campaign against drunk driving among young people, broaching the subject of sex, even in educating someone on how to protect themselves from being the victim – or even the perpetrator – of a crime is not as readily accepted.
"In a very conservative environment, how do you talk about non-consensual sex when you can't talk freely about consensual sex?" said Jennifer Dritt of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, whose community is embroiled in an investigation into an alleged sexual assault by Florida State football star Jameis Winston. "The more able we are to discuss that, the more skills we give to young people to talk about that, the better able they will be to articulate a lack of consent.
"There are very good bystander intervention programs," Dritt continued. "We know most men don't rape. I don't believe this is just a thing men do. I don't believe people are runaway trains. We have to encourage men and women to talk about that."
Said Hanna: "We have to get past that here. We have to talk about healthy relationships, about intervention, about appropriate actions because not talking about it hasn't stopped these crimes from occurring."
For all involved, that's the hope. That somehow Steubenville can lead to something more than just over-the-top national scorn on this bottomed-out town or just locking up everyone with a tangential role in the night in question.
"Fourteen-, 15-, 16-year-old kids are drinking, someone gets drunk, they get taken advantage of … it happens everywhere, every weekend," DeWine said. "The message to the adults is you have some obligation to know where your kid is and know what they are doing. And if they are doing anything in your home, act like an adult, act like you are supposed to, and deal with it. If you know about it, report it. And everyone must cooperate with authorities.
"This isn't just about Steubenville. It can't just be about Steubenville."