Lawyer for Steubenville rape victim's family: Charges against officials send strong message

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From the destructive potential of social media to the importance of vigilant parenting, there is a litany of lessons from the rape case that focused national attention on Steubenville, Ohio, says the lawyer for the teenage victim and her family.

However, the strongest statement might have been delivered by the announcement Monday that four Steubenville school officials, including the superintendent, will face charges stemming from the sexual assault of the then-16-year-old girl from Weirton, W.Va., last year by two football players and allegations that the crime was covered up.

"It's a message to all the women in the country and worldwide that there's no tolerance of rape, and the individuals directly responsible and those that obstruct the investigation or interfere with the investigation in any way will also be held accountable," said Bob Fitzsimmons, the Wheeling, W.Va., lawyer who represents the victim and her family.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and his staff have met with the family repeatedly and have devoted an extensive amount of time and resources to the special grand jury investigation that concluded with the charges announced Monday, Mr. Fitzsimmons said.

"The time and effort that they spent is something we're really thankful for," he said.

Two Steubenville High players, Trent Mays and Ma'Lik Richmond, were found delinquent in the rape during a juvenile proceeding in March. A special grand jury was empaneled a month later in Jefferson County and heard from 123 witnesses over 18 days as it delved into whether additional charges should be filed in the case.

Monday's announcement follows charges filed in October against Steubenville schools' director of technology, William Rhinaman, 53, of Mingo Junction, on felony counts of tampering with evidence, perjury and obstructing justice and a misdemeanor count of obstructing official business.

"This community has suffered so much. I personally feel for the citizens and what they have endured. And I know that they desperately need to be able to put this matter behind them," Mr. DeWine said in a statement Monday. "All of us -- no matter where we live -- owe it to each other to be better neighbors, classmates, friends, parents and citizens. We must treat rape and sexual assault as the serious crime of violence that it is. And when it is investigated, everyone has an obligation to help find the truth, not hide the truth, not tamper with the truth, not obstruct the truth and not destroy the truth."

Mr. Fitzsimmons said his client, now 17, has returned to school, where she is an honor student, participates in sports and was elected by her classmates to the homecoming court. She remains in counseling, however, and occasionally copes with difficult "moments," he said.

"This is a really strong family that's united. Because of that they've gone through it together. They've tried to turn it into a positive message for women," Mr. Fitzsimmons said.

With the grand jury's work finished, Mr. Fitzsimmons said the community and school system can also turn a page.

"It kind of defines the scope of the individuals allegedly responsible for criminal conduct," he said. "They can correct any things they have found to be deficient as to their procedures and what's required of the adults that oversee these children."

All states either designate professions whose members are required by law to report child abuse or neglect or require any person who suspects child abuse to report it, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Children's Bureau.

Ohio classifies a wide range of "mandatory reporters" including clergy, lawyers, doctors, nurses and other health care and mental health workers, coroners, child-care workers, teachers, school employees and school authorities, social workers and others. Two of the Steubenville officials, a teacher and a principal, were charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly failing to report child abuse.

Pennsylvania has a similar list of required reporters and also makes failure to make a mandatory report punishable by a misdemeanor.

However, a raft of legislation based on the recommendations of the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection, which was convened in late 2011 in the aftermath of the arrest of Jerry Sandusky in the sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State, would clarify laws on mandatory reporters, increase penalties for failing to report abuse and update the state's definition of child abuse, among other changes.

None has yet been signed into law.

And though time is running out before the General Assembly breaks for the year, advocates are hoping for a holiday season surge of energy.

"The further away we get from the spotlight and the closer we get to an election cycle, the harder it gets to get this done," said Cathleen Palm, co-founder of the Protect Our Children Committee, a statewide coalition of child advocates that had been pushing for a task force to reform Pennsylvania's laws long before the Sandusky arrest, Ms. Palm said.

"Our child-protection laws in Pennsylvania have been inadequate for decades," she said.

Many of the measures enjoy broad support but have been pushed onto the back burner by debates over transportation and the budget.

"Quite frankly, it's just a matter of getting it done rather than substantive differences of opinion at this time," she said.

Jason Kutulakis, a Carlisle lawyer who served on the task force and has testified at numerous Senate and House hearings on the legislation, says he expects as many as 20 bills to be ready for the governor's signature in the next month.

"Believe it or not, it's going at warp speed," Mr. Kutulakis said. "The vast majority if not all the bills that come out of committee have come out of committee unanimously. None of this has a single thing to do with politics at all. The elected officials are actually putting kids at the forefront of everything."

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909.



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