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.