After Ma’Lik Richmond and Trent Mays were found delinquent of raping an incapacitated 16-year-old girl in August 2012, critics watching the case leveled a stinging allegation against Steubenville, Ohio: In the hero-worshipping football town, star players—like Richmond and Hays—can do no wrong. That accusation proved true this week when Richmond, released from juvenile detention after serving nine months of a one-year sentence, was admitted back onto Steubenville High School’s Big Red football team, rejoining a privileged class of students while his victim carries on coping with the trauma of rape.
While the justice system may have punished Richmond as it saw fit, it’s also the job of schools and communities to create a safe environment for young people. Steubenville and its local high school, unfortunately, have done little to create that safe space.
School officials say students and teachers spent a large portion of last school year discussing sexual assault and bystander intervention; however, it appears these efforts will not continue in full force this year once Richmond has returned to school. School superintendent Micheal McVey told Jezebel that Steubenville City Schools have only scheduled two assemblies to discuss good decision-making (a rather vague concept) during the upcoming year.
Indeed, community members seem more focused on bemoaning the negative media attention wrought by the incident than discussing the unimaginable emotional and physical pain caused by sexual assault and educating students about respect and consent.
Efforts to remove community leaders, such as athletic coaches, who have tacitly condoned rape culture have also fallen short. Head coach of the Steubenville High School football team, Reno Saccoccia, will continue to lead the team even after refusing to punish players who posted photos of the incident online and testifying in favor of Mays and Richmond during their trials.
Initially, players who watched and even videotaped the assault were not suspended from the team—they were only suspended after playing for a majority of the regular season games. Saccoccia says he made that choice because the players saw no fault in their decisions.
Another coach, Nate Hubbard, also directly participated in the horrific victim-blaming that accompanied the trial when he said, “The rape was just an excuse, I think … What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that?”
Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine, however, has taken action against other community members who failed to uphold their responsibilities as educators in the wake of the August 2012 rape. Last November, a grand jury charged the superintendent of Steubenville City Schools and others with lying or failing to report child abuse following the sexual assault.
“This community is rectifying the problem. This community is taking charge. This community is fixing things. This community is holding people accountable,” DeWine said. “That’s what this grand jury did.”
Meanwhile, the victim is still attempting to put the pieces of her life back together. Brendon Sadler, a friend of her family, told Jezebel that she wants privacy and is feeling “overwhelmed … because people won’t let it go.” Many have used online platforms to suggest the victim deserved to be raped, and Richmond’s lawyer implied that provocative comments and photos posted by the victim signal she was asking to be assaulted.
Community members “think they’re getting too much attention? How do they think [the victim] feels?” Sadler asked.
To ensure this young woman doesn’t continue to be re-victimized, and to prevent similar situations in the future, Steubenville leaders could follow the lead of SPARK, a national movement dedicated to fighting the sexualization of girls and young women in media. After hearing about the Steubenville rape, SPARK petitioned the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) to design a sexual violence prevention education program for coaches. NFHS announced last year that they will offer sexual violence prevention resources for coaches as part of their annual accreditation requirements.
In a town like Steubenville, where coaches have immense influence, educating them about consent and respect would be an important step toward creating a safe environment for students, as would continuing sexual assault education for students. As one player claimed, he didn’t know that digitally penetrating the victim constituted rape, demonstrating a clear need to expand the community’s understanding of assault.
Dozens of other steps could be taken—from encouraging Richmond to speak to his fellow students on how to prevent sexual assault to designing sexuality courses that emphasize consent to offering bystander training for community members—all actions that do not involve allowing a rapist to play on the football team.
Steubenville must send the message that rapists are not heroes and that those who condone sexual assault and blame victims will not be leaders in the community. Until that happens, rape culture will only continue to flourish.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mary L licensed under Creative Commons 2.0