By John Raby
The rape of a 16-year-old girl by two football players in eastern Ohio— a case brought to light by social media — is being used by a federal prosecutor to educate athletes in West Virginia about being responsible when texting and making posts on the Internet.
U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld called the combination of alcohol, smartphones and social media “extremely volatile” in introducing a program Thursday that will be rolled out this month at 11 high schools.
A judge in March convicted the two players of raping the West Virginia girl last summer after an alcohol-fueled party in Steubenville, Ohio, once in a moving car, the second time in the basement of a house.
The rape case “definitely played a role in causing us to think ‘who do we need to focus upon?’” Ihlenfeld told The Associated Press. “We thought ‘let’s start calling athletic directors and coaches to see if they’re interested.’ That investment of time hopefully will pay dividends down the road, not only because you hope the kids are going to stay out of trouble. Social media creates so many distractions off the field for coaches. Maybe we can help them avoid that situation as well.”
The program was unveiled in Wheeling, which is 26 miles south of Steubenville. It comes on the heels of a drug education program started by Ihlenfeld’s office last year called “Project Future.” The latest program, dubbed “Project Future Two-a-Days,” includes 15 minutes focusing on drugs and alcohol and 15 minutes on social media.
“We bring the perspective of ‘OK, if you do this, this is what can happen. We don’t want to see you in court,”’ Ihlenfeld said.
In the Ohio case, Ma’Lik Richmond was sentenced to at least a year in the state juvenile detention system. Trent Mays was sentenced to at least two years in juvenile detention. He was also convicted of using his phone to photograph the underage girl naked.
The case drew international attention because of the role of text messages and social media in exposing the attack and led to allegations of a cover-up to protect the Steubenville High School football team.
The girl, who had been drinking heavily, has no memory of the attack. One of the ways she learned that something had happened to her was by viewing parts of a 12-minute YouTube video filmed the night of the attack in which students made crude jokes about her.
On Monday, a grand jury in Steubenville is set to resume its investigation into whether more laws were broken in the girl’s rape. One of the key issues is whether adults who are required to report crimes knew early on of the rape last August but didn’t say anything.
Ihlenfeld said the Steubenville case “was eye opening — one night with high school students involved with alcohol, (smartphones) and social media, how that can change the lives of those involved forever.”
The West Virginia schools involved in the program are the high school football teams at Brooke, Cameron, Hundred, John Marshall, Magnolia, Wheeling Central, and Wheeling Park, and all athletes in fall sports at Oak Glen, Paden City and Weir high schools. In addition, a presentation will be made at a school expo at Bridgeport High School.
Ihlenfeld invited colleges and other high schools interested in the program to contact him. Ihlenfeld’s district in northern West Virginia covers 32 counties.