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Lessons learned from Steubenville rape case

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last month's rape case involving two football players from Steubenville (Ohio) High School drew a lot of attention around the country.

One possible reason for that widespread interest, undoubtedly, is that the situation could have happened in virtually any community across the United States.

Athletes elevated to hero status. Teens with perhaps too much freedom, not to mention access to alcohol. And, of course, the explosive new world of social media.

The basic ingredients are present almost everywhere. Unfortunately, they came together and reached the boiling point last fall in Steubenville.

To recap, a 16-year-old West Virginia girl was assaulted during a series of drunken parties last August - the results of which were captured on cell phone photos and video and discussed in a flurry of texts and Tweets. Steubenville High players Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'Lik Richmond, 16, were found "delinquent'' (the equivalent of a guilty verdict in juvenile court) on rape charges March 17 after an extensively scrutinized four-day trial.

The case still simmers even now, as an Eastern Ohio grand jury is set to convene on Tuesday to delve into possible additional charges, including an alleged cover-up that could include Reno Saccoccia, the school's head football coach.

Kanawha Valley educators, coaches, parents and community leaders have kept a close eye on the Steubenville situation, with hopes they can learn something from how it all happened.

Clinton Giles, principal at Capital High School, said the case had less to do with sports and more to do with unsupervised youth.

"It could happen anywhere,'' Giles said. "It just happened to be a football team. It could be any team or any group. A group of young people get together to have a good time, then you introduce alcohol and the good time turns into tragedy. Young people and the games they play are far more serious, and the potential consequences are far more grave now than they were in decades past.

"It's not like it was 30, 40 years ago. Youthful indiscretions anymore take on a far more serious tone. It's not a bunch of guys getting together and riding up to the mountaintop strip mine with a case of beer after a game in the '60s and '70s. That's not what happens now. With the freedom given young people at times, they make poor decisions, and unfortunately the consequences of those decisions seem to be far more severe.

"We've sort of lost our innocence,'' Giles said, "and it's not just football. It's not just athletics. Parents are away on vacation and they leave the house to the kids. The next thing you know, people are called over and the party gets started and bad things happen. Steubenville got the publicity because it was a high-profile football team. But that same thing happens every weekend somewhere in the United States of America, including here in Charleston, West Virginia.''

Rev. Matthew Watts, the senior pastor at Grace Bible Church in Charleston, thinks the newfound freedom of young people, along with technological gains, have formed a "lethal combination'' that signals danger.

"We're now in the 21st century,'' Watts said, "and children are more mobile than ever before. They have access to automobile transportation and the technology of communication. It allows them basically to have freedom no other generation has had.

"Along with that, I believe, is somewhat of a relaxing supervision of adolescents and teenagers, and young people who are still minors really have too much in the way of financial resources at their disposal, too much transportation at their disposal, access to alcohol and drugs and no parental supervision. Then a lethal combination forms and something is bound to happen.''

One of the things that shot the Steubenville story into the headlines was the purported special treatment of athletes in a community that is passionate about football.

"That area is a hotbed for football,'' said John Messinger, the former coach at South Charleston. "Those people are held on a pedestal to begin with, and maybe they think they can get by with something and there be no consequences.

"If adults and coaches were to make an effort to sweep things under the rug or somehow hide it, they're not helping those kids, the program, the community or that school [because] kids continue to think they can get away with those behaviors. We have to give them discipline, good images of what discipline is, good role models.''

Giles thinks it's possible some towns may turn a blind eye to situations that arise like the one in Steubenville.

"What was done was done in fun,'' Giles said, "and the feeling in the community is that they were football players - the good guys who carry our honor and pride and uphold it every Friday night. And because of that, it initially appeared that the situation was sort of dismissed as youthful indiscretion when, in fact, a serious crime had been committed. Now the young people who are victims will wear the scar of that for a lifetime.''

From his work at Grace Bible Church, Watts is aware of the perils of underage drinking at unsupervised parties that can often bring about abuse of young girls.

"Bad things normally happen,'' Watts said, "and they're going to be sexual in nature . . . This happens much more than what gets reported. In many cases, a lot of young girls are sexually assaulted and misused and it's going unreported. I know that for a fact because those types of things have come to my attention over the years I have worked in the Charleston community. Young girls come to me and share things that happen to them because they're afraid to tell anybody about it.

"I think preferential treatment [is given] to any people of stature and status. Athletes get the benefit of the doubt more often. There's inconsistency, really, is how we normally administer the laws based on socio-economic status and, occasionally, popularity.''

Messinger pointed out that the arrests of nationally known athletes such as Michael Vick and Kobe Bryant don't always send up red flags to young players.

"We have become a very, very forgiving society,'' said Messinger, who led SC to back-to-back Class AAA football titles in 2008-09. "They see their sports athletes and heroes do things that go against the grain - not very disciplined things. It goes to the forefront, there are consequences and then all too soon we forget what happened.

"Vick and Kobe, those are professional athletes kids look up to. They see their behavior and the punishment, but in the long run they get away with it, and in the long run, kids think they can get away with the same things. We don't stick to our guns as adults and teachers and enforce discipline as to what is wrong and what is right.

"These kids are not getting the discipline they need to function successfully in society today. Something they do becomes accepted behavior, and we write it off. One thing we lack in general as a society with our young people is just discipline . . . You have to give them something they can live by, some code of ethics so they understand, 'This is the way things are.' As a coach, as an adult, as a parent, we're responsible to supply that. I tell our players and kids in the classroom I almost feel sorry for this generation of kids - radio, TV and music bombard them with all the wrong images, standards and codes. It becomes an accepted lifestyle for them.''

Watts believes everyone - youth and adults - is responsible for situations like the one that happened in Steubenville.

"I talked about that in one of my sermons,'' Watts said. "You deal with young boys and girls and there's real conversations about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and the dangers of the situations that really could have a negative outcome. You have to hold everybody accountable for their decisions.

"Certainly, you can't excuse the behavior of the young men, and they need to be held accountable - and they are by law. And also from the standpoint of young women to allow themselves to be in that situation - intoxicated and inebriated and losing control. If I lose control of my thinking, I'm able to be exploited. We need to control the actions of what we do and try not to get in situations where things like this can happen.

"Also, kids need to be supervised. You can't give kids access to a house and just go off somewhere. They need to be supervised.''

Even with all the negative images left over from the Steubenville case, Capital's Giles feels like there's still hope for youth growing up today and in years to come.

"We adults, parents, school teachers and administrators can't do enough to expose students to positive messages and encourage them to engage in responsible decision-making,'' Giles said. "That's the majority of my job. At end of each day at our school, the last three things we say are, 'Every day make good decisions, wear a seatbelt and continue to commit to graduate every single day.' The last thing you hear are those three things.

"We spend a great deal of time and effort and energy to expose students to positive messages throughout the day. Encourage people to do the right things, help them to develop a sense of patriotism, civic responsibility, a sense of wanting to contribute and give back to the community.

"I have tremendous faith in young people,'' Giles said. "They're our future. I was a young person and I made a ton of mistakes and benefited from being corrected from people who saw more in me than I saw in myself. They felt I could contribute and be something. That's the approach we have to take with all kids. We have to teach them well and afford them opportunities to demonstrate their skills, talents and their maturity, and the vast majority grow up to be responsible adults.''

Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazette.com.

 


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