Steubenville hasn't changed at all: “You trying to write about that whole rape thing?”

It's been two years since the horrific sexual assault. We visited the Ohio town looking for progress. There's none

Published November 30, 2014 11:59AM (EST)

Harding Stadium, home of the Steubenville High Big Red football team, Steubenville, Ohio, January 8, 2013.        (Reuters/Jason Cohn)
Harding Stadium, home of the Steubenville High Big Red football team, Steubenville, Ohio, January 8, 2013. (Reuters/Jason Cohn)

In August 2012, two members of the Steubenville, Ohio, high school football team — the pride of the town — were accused of sexually assaulting a drunken 16-year-old. Many of their fellow students looked on, laughed and shared photos of the girl on social media. In effect, the community was able to watch the assault unfold in real-time. National outrage mounted as evidence emerged that school authorities had tried to cover up the crime and protect the two football stars.

I went to Steubenville this spring to find out how community members might have shifted their attitudes on sexual violence in light of the incident. It turns out that for the most part, they haven’t.

No one wants to talk about it

At around 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, the doors to Steubenville High School swing open. A steady stream of tight jeans and varsity jackets descends the front steps toward the parking lot.

It’s early May but the town is hung with a gray smog, one that the locals say never fully disappears no matter the season. The neighborhood around the school feels abandoned, almost derelict. There’s a Salvation Army across the street. Next to it is a YWCA with a beat-up billboard advertising its mission: Empowering Women. Beside the high school a flashing neon sign celebrates the school’s football team, known locally as Big Red. The sign reads: “Roll Red Roll: The Pride of the Valley.”

A stocky boy in a Big Red football jersey stops to talk with me. “You trying to write about that whole rape thing?” he asks. When I nod he says gruffly: “No one is going to talk to you about it. I don’t mean to be disrespectful. You seem like a nice girl. I just want to save you time. No one wants to talk about it.”

This won’t be the last warning I receive. It’s clear the locals don’t take well to nosy reporters. Not long afterward, an administrator comes by and tells me to leave: “I’m giving you five minutes to get off my property before I call the police.”

It’s not just students who are reluctant to talk — few in the community seem comfortable discussing the case. Authorities have not implemented any formal programs to reduce sexual violence in the community. Even informal conversations about the assault have largely died down, students tell me.

I ask Brianna Jones, a local whose stepsister attends Steubenville High, whether the case influenced teenage behavior at all. She laughs aloud. “Has it changed the way guys treat girls or approach sex? Not at all,” Jones, says, chuckling, and shakes her head sadly. “Not at all. If anything, things have gotten worse. These guys still do the same disgusting things.”

Steubenville High student Christine White, who was dating a boy involved at the time of the case, agrees. The incident had “no effect at all” on the community’s attitudes toward sex and consent, she tells me.

Down Heroin Highway

On my first day in Steubenville, my cab driver offers to take me on a quick tour of the city. He drives me across the bridge that the locals call Heroin Highway and into the downtown area, which consists primarily of boarded-up shops and shattered windows. The streets are eerily empty, but the courthouse steps are bustling. Everything seems built with a touch of irony — Elegance Bakery is just a rundown shack, and Lovers’ Lane is strewn with garbage and needles.

As we drive past town hall and the police department, my driver points out the prostitutes walking the streets of Steubenville’s red light district. Most of them wear tattered clothes, their skin stained with bruises and dirt. “You won’t want to be out on the streets at night,” he tells me. “You’ll probably be confused for a prostitute and you’ll get bought.” He points out the town’s best bakery, famous for its fresh bread, but warns me not to go there alone. We pass some playgrounds. They’re among the most dangerous areas in town, known as hotbeds of drug deals and shoot-outs.

Driving down Sunset Boulevard, we near Harding Stadium, the home of Big Red. On Friday nights, fans come into town from miles away to see the games. The stadium seats 10,000, more than half of the city’s population, and it’s nearly always packed. The team rarely disappoints. It has won nine state championships, with undefeated seasons in 2005 and 2006. “This town is all about Big Red,” my driver tells me. “It’s like a real live 'Friday Night Lights.'

Toward the end of our tour, I agree to accompany my cab driver to pick up one of his regular customers. She climbs into the backseat with two toddlers and a whimpering infant. As we drive to the hospital to drop her off, I learn that she is a prostitute and her baby suffers because of the “street drugs” she did while pregnant. She tells me that she recently moved to Steubenville from Harrisburg, thinking it would be a good community in which to raise her seven kids, but she is already ready to leave.

She gives her wailing baby a sidelong glance. “Maybe he’s just getting his lungs ready to be a big ball player,” she sighs. “Then he’ll make his mama some money. Or at least enough to get us out of this damned place.”

Steubenville wasn’t always this down at the heels, my tour-guide assures me. Once it was a booming steel town, but it was hit hard when the mills closed. Since 1970, the population has nosedived to 18,000, 40 per cent of its original size. More than a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line.

The city did not gain real notoriety, though, until two years ago. For decades it had been just another Rust Belt town — indistinguishable, to most Americans, from dozens of nearby cities ravaged by the decline of the steel industry. All that changed on Aug. 11, 2012, when a teenage girl from Weirton, West Virginia, just across the Ohio River, was sexually assaulted by two of Steubenville High’s star football players: sophomore quarterback Trent Mays and wide-receiver Ma’lik Richmond.

It was a Saturday night toward the end of summer. Students were driving into Steubenville from all over the area, ready to celebrate their last weeks of vacation and the start of football season. They congregated at the home of one of Steubenville High’s volunteer football coaches. Drinks were served from a makeshift bar stocked with vodka, rum and whiskey. “Huge party!!! Banger!!!!” Trent Mays had tweeted.

Across the river in Weirton, the 16-year-old girl told her parents she would be sleeping at a friend’s house that night. She left the house, spiked a slushy with vodka, and headed toward the Steubenville High party. But after several hours, the night began to sour.

The next day the young woman from Weirton would be unable to recall much that happened to her. Police eventually pieced together an account of her night, relying on witness testimony and aided by the many tweets and photographs that her peers had posted in real time.

Witnesses say the young girl was noticeably drunker than others at the party. She was slurring her words and stumbling. Other kids taunted her. One Steubenville High baseball player dared a friend to urinate on her. Eventually she found her way to a second party. She was carried out of that one “sleeping,” according to witness testimony, and woke up only long enough to vomit in the street.

A group of Big Red football players then drove her to a third party. In the backseat of the car, Mays flashed the girl’s breasts and penetrated her with his fingers while a third football player recorded it on video.

At the third party, Mays tried to coerce the girl into giving him oral sex. As she lay on the ground, naked and unresponsive, Mays exposed himself and Richmond penetrated her with his fingers. Mays’s best friend photographed the scene.

The girl fell asleep in the basement of that home. When she awoke in the morning, she could not remember what had happened to her. But she quickly began to see texts, tweets and photos telling the story of her night. Three days later, on Aug. 14, her parents walked into the Steubenville police station and turned over a flash drive with whatever evidence of the assault they could collect. One week later, Mays and Richmond were arrested.

It was a few days afterward that the assault started to attract national attention when 46-year-old Web analyst Alexandria Goddard, a onetime Steubenville resident who now lives in Columbus, began blogging about it. As interest grew, one photo of the fateful night went viral: Mays and Richmond were holding the girl from Weirton by her ankles and wrists, her head drooping backward and hair trailing on the ground. The girl’s ex-boyfriend Cody Saltzman tweeted the image with the words, “Never seen anything this sloppy lol.” A boy named Pat Pizzoferrato, who was also at the party, tweeted, “If they’re getting ‘raped’ and don’t resist then to me it’s not rape. I feel bad for her but still.”

In the weeks after the rape case, numerous school leaders were accused of obstructing investigation into the case. By the spring of 2013, the state attorney general was investigating the school’s football coach and other local officials on charges of covering up evidence. Several of those cases are still pending. But the town seemed to give its answer to the accusations in April 2013 when the football coach had his contract renewed for two more years.

Church town, sin city

Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty studies me from across his office desk, a sleek wood table lined with Snoopy figurines and photos of his family. “You know,” he says, “If you’re looking for a story about the town healing, I really don’t know what to tell you.” Steubenville, he insists, was never really torn apart. There was never anything to heal.

For the world outside the small town, the 2012 case was, as one columnist described it, “rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment.” But in the homes and churches and football bleachers of Steubenville, locals carried on as though nothing had changed. To the extent that townsfolk thought something had gone wrong, their answer was to redouble their commitment to their old habits.

The traditional Steubenville way of life centers on two things: Big Red and the church —institutions that can be easily confused, townsfolk joke. The neighborhoods are dotted with steeples, and more than 43 percent of the city’s population affiliates with a religious congregation. On Friday night, locals say, the stadium is packed, and on Sunday, so are the churches.

Neither of these cultural pillars — not the football-crazy culture, not the deeply Christian environment — makes it easy to start talking about sexual respect. Kim Bowman, youth director of Crossroads Christian Church, tells me that football and faith combine to fill a void created by crime and economic depression.  But both bring their downsides.

The focus on football means that some teenagers — Big Red players in particular — can get away with anything, students tell me. “This whole city is based around Big Red,” Brianna Jones says. “It makes everything so political. Everything you get is based on who you know on the team.” Goddard, the blogger, says the 2012 rape case revealed the town’s unspoken rule: “Big Red players can get away with anything.”

On the other hand, the community’s religious conservatism makes it difficult for adults to engage the youth in conversations on sex and other sensitive subjects. Religious leaders, who might be expected to lead the way in transmitting values, don’t always have a clear sense of how to discuss sex and alcohol with teenagers, says Dr. James Rudiger, pastor of Cove Presbyterian Church in Weirton. We’re sitting in his office, which is filled with sports paraphernalia and 450 miniature football helmets. Rudiger says he would be happy to speak to the youth of his congregation about issues such as consent and sexual assault if he were asked, but no one has ever approached him. He has brought up rape from his pulpit, but not the 2012 Steubenville case in particular. “Besides,” he adds, “I think the spiritual implications of rape are pretty obvious.”

At the same time, Rudiger says he wishes that his 12-year-old daughter’s school would do a better job of educating about sexual health. She attends middle school at Weir Madonna, the Catholic parochial school where the Steubenville rape survivor attends high school. “I don’t find those sorts of classes threatening,” he says. “I think it’d be healthy for her to learn about sexuality. I wish they would teach it.”

Here and there, a few churches have managed to stimulate discussions about the rape case. At Crossroads Christian Church, where some teenagers loosely involved in the case — friends of the accused — are parishioners, the case stirred important conversations that had been ignored for too long, says the church’s youth director Bowman. “We have to find a way to approach these topics in a godly way,” Bowman says. “If we don’t talk about them with our kids we’re not being realistic.”

In a way, though, the churches — the institutions that Steubenville relies on to help young people grapple with values — are uniquely incapable of addressing right and wrong in a world of changing sexual mores, because they don’t accept that sexual morality can legitimately change. They can’t teach kids about consent or sexual respect, because they don’t believe kids should be engaging in sexual activity to begin with. Trish Flanigan, Family Violence Prevention Program director at a YWCA in nearby Wheeling, says she works with far too many children who do not know how to recognize dating violence. “We focus on teaching youth about alcohol, drugs and tobacco but we don’t emphasize healthy relationships from a young age. So bad habits can start to form.”

Goddard, the blogger, says some town residents did try to improve sex education programs in the wake of the incident. But they didn’t make much headway because they couldn’t win the backing of the broader community. In January 2013, five months after the assault, the Ohio Alliance for Prevention of Violence organized a round-table discussion about sexual assault. Five hundred invitations were sent to parents of Steubenville High students. On the day of the round table, only 19 showed up. “That is very telling,” Goddard says. “I just wonder, do they not think they have a problem? Is that why they’re so reluctant to talk?”

Not surprisingly, the schools in the area rarely addressed it, either. “My health teacher brought it up once but he didn’t really want to get into it,” says Hannah, a student at nearby Indian Creek High School. “He didn’t want to offend anyone in the class.”

In part, too, it seems the Steubenville community has had a difficult time opening itself to changes in modern mores because its experiences with the winds of national change — from the flight of industry to the influx of hard drugs — have been so relentlessly negative. Goddard believes Steubenville is a bubble whose residents have learned to be suspicious of outsiders.

“You have a community where a lot of people don’t leave, so they don’t see other ways of life,” Goddard says, her voice strained. “They think outsiders need to mind their own business. But unless you get out into the world, you don’t have a sense that other people aren’t living like you are.”

Let’s talk about sex

Inability to discuss sex with youngsters has many consequences, but the most glaring one is that many of the young people enter adolescence in a state of profound ignorance. “They don’t know that digital penetration is rape,” says Goddard. “They don’t know what consent is. It’s all about that lack of information. When you don’t know those things, look what happens: You have a lot of kids who get in trouble.”

This ignorance was on shocking display during the boys’ trial. The survivor told the courtroom she had never been taught the legal definition of rape at the time of the assault. She was not aware it included digital penetration. Mark Cole, a bystander who testified in return for immunity, told the courtroom that he first learned the term “voyeur” from the prosecution; this became relevant in testimony on the photos and videos he had taken of the victim on the night of the assault.

One of the bystanders was asked why he did not step in to defend the girl when one of the perpetrators exposed her breasts. “At the time, no one really saw it as being forceful,” the young man explained.

Steubenville High School does offer a health class. Two Steubenville High students, who say they cannot tell me their names for fear of retribution from school authorities, recall learning about dangers of misbehavior, like sexually transmitted diseases, anorexia, depression and alcoholism. They do not think the words “consent” and “bystander intervention” were ever mentioned. Ashley, a Steubenville High graduate, says she was never required to take a health class at all.

Goddard believes the rape case should have prompted school authorities to reevaluate sex education — but thus far, nothing has changed. “The city could have started an initiative on rape culture or bystander intervention and they haven’t,” Goddard says. “They could have taught teachers about mandatory reporting. There are a lot of things they could have done without the courts forcing them as punishment, but they haven’t taken the initiative.”

Comeback Valley

City councilman Bob Villamagna agrees to meet me one afternoon at the local Tim Hortons. I’m expecting my first sighting of a suit and tie in Steubenville. Instead, Villamagna turns out to be a large man in a tattered Harley Davidson shirt, with a firm handshake and an arm’s worth of tattoos. He tells me a bit about himself over coffee.

The councilman was raised in a “rough part of town” where he did his fair share of drugs as a teenager. But his family encouraged him to strive for more. He became a police officer and now serves on the city council. He says he’s working to stimulate economic growth and development. For all of Steubenville’s poverty and social disorder, he tells me he is proud of his hometown.

“The news media gave Steubenville a worse reputation than what it deserves,” Villamagna tells me gravely. “They sensationalize too much. I don’t think a quarter of what was said was correct. But that’s what sells newspapers. I’m 100 percent against what happened, but those journalists just covered it and covered it.”

In the parking lot of Steubenville High School I meet Ally, a senior who was loosely involved in the case. Like the councilman, she says reporters blew the story completely out of proportion. “The whole situation really sucked, especially the media attention,” she tells me. “It took a toll on everyone involved.”

Two younger students standing nearby, Brandy and Michaela, become agitated as they recall the experience of watching their town fill up with reporters after the case blew up. Journalists would stand in the school’s parking lots, waiting to pounce on the students exiting the building after class.

The hordes of reporters and television cameras massed outside the school placed a heavy burden on the community, says Chief McCafferty. “We had families put through hell, calls from parents who were concerned,” he tells me. “Some parents were afraid to even send their kids to school.”

The coverage that ended up in the national media spawned its own set of complaints. Ronnie Briggs, a Steubenville native who conducts bus tours of the region, describes the coverage as “very unfair.” The reporters were biased in favor of the victim, he grumbles, sitting on a bench at the local mall. “The media exposed facts about the boys but they didn’t take the time to learn about the girl. The young lady is not as innocent as they made her out to be.”

Briggs’ view might be extreme. Villamagna assures me that Steubenville residents were certainly concerned about the young woman. But they were also concerned about the town’s reputation. Journalists were descending on their city, a community already bruised from years of economic hardship, and reducing it to a poster-child for rape culture. Villamagna and others responded defensively, with demonstrations of hometown pride. “This town, it’s like your grandmother,” Villamagna tells me. “She’s old. She’s tired. But she’s still a good person.”

The townfolk are consistently quick to tell me about their community’s commitment to prayer, charity, service — and, of course, team spirit. Beth Rupert-Warren, executive director of the local United Way, says Steubenville bands together in times of crisis. “If there’s a kid who’s sick, everyone will come together and make the family a spaghetti dinner,” she says. That sort of resilience gives Rupert-Warren hope for Steubenville’s future. Right now, the town is known for its sexual abuse and the surrounding area for its joblessness. But one day, she tells me, Steubenville will be known as “comeback valley.”

First, though, the community will have to confront its failings, Rupert-Warren acknowledges. The hometown pride is something they’ve got down, she says; now they need to “point at the ugly.” “Our town has been wounded. But I see through the brokenness that there can be change, that we are a strong community.”

In the end, though, it’s hard to tell what meaningful change will look like. Will it mean reforms in sex education? An effort by the churches to address sexual violence?

Several weeks ago, Villamagna tells me, he went to a local black church with a colleague from the city council. When the preacher called out a blessing for the city council, the congregation began to shout: “Amen! Amen! Thank you, Jesus, for sending us Bob Villamagna!” Nervously, Villamagna looked around the room. He was hit with a sudden realization of the trust his constituents had placed in him. He realized their expectations were high. And he is scared, he says, of failure.

Villamagna knows this community needs real change, not just another church prayer or win for Big Red. But he does not know where to look for solutions, how to lead the town in a new direction. Today in Steubenville, it all still comes down to football and faith — the two things that failed them in the first place.

By Emma Goldberg

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