What Steubenville Tells Us About Coaches’ Legal Obligations
to Report Rape and Other Child Abuse
By Doug Abrams
The nation took notice on Sunday morning, March 17, when juvenile court judge Thomas Lipps found two Steubenville, Ohio high school football stars delinquent for digitally raping a drunk, and nearly unconscious, 16-year-old girl during a night of alcohol-drenched partying following a pre-season scrimmage last August 11. Without intervening or seeking outside help, a few dozen students watched or cheered as boys photographed the victim, stripped off her clothing, and belittled her as she was carried from party to party.
The evidence, which Judge Lipps described as “profane and ugly,” was not confined to the two stars. Allegations also surfaced that a local jock-ocracy placed football players on a pedestal, protected by a code of silence that enabled adolescent “rape crews” to prowl without concern for personal consequences or the constraints of common decency. Speaking about the football team, one local resident told the New York Times that “[t]he players are considered heroes, and that’s pretty pathetic, because they’ve been able to get away with things for years because of it. Everyone just looks the other way.”
To “bring finality so the community feels that justice has been done,” state attorney general Mike DeWine has convened a grand jury to consider whether to indict other persons for their roles before, during or after the August 11 rapes. Among the subjects of public attention is Reno Saccoccia, Steubenville High’s head football coach, who may have committed a crime by allegedly failing to report the incidents immediately to authorities.
This column concerns the Steubenville’s school board. Late last month, without waiting for the grand jury to conclude its deliberations, the board irresponsibly renewed the coach’s administrative contract for two years. (The action does not affect his five-year coaching contract, which still has two more years to run.) Despite the school superintendent’s statement to the contrary, the contract renewal sent a message widely perceived as a vote of confidence in the longtime coach. During his 30-year tenure, his “Big Red” teams have brought high school football glory to the struggling Rust Belt town, but the board exercised bad judgment by acting in the face of evidence that he may have participated in an unlawful cover-up.
Mandatory Abuse Reporting
Like every other state, Ohio creates a class of “mandatory reporters,” persons who must immediately inform authorities about known or suspected acts of physical, sexual or emotional child abuse perpetrated by an adult or a minor. This class includes a “school teacher; school employee [or] school authority.” As the football coach and a Steubenville school district administrator, Mr. Saccoccia would seem to qualify.
Teachers and school administrators normally receive training and instruction about their obligations under state abuse reporting laws. Ohio law requires an immediate report from a mandatory reporter “who is acting in an official or professional capacity and knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect based on facts that would cause a reasonable person in a similar position to suspect, that a child under eighteen years of age . . . has suffered or faces a threat of suffering any physical or mental wound, injury, disability, or condition of a nature that reasonable indicates abuse or neglect. . . .”
Failure to file a mandatory report is a fourth-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of 30 days in jail.
Evidence potentially damaging to Coach Reno Saccoccia emerged during the Mays-Richmond delinquency hearing. On August 13, two days after the raucous parties, quarterback Mays texted a friend whose 12-minute video of the incidents would soon go viral. Mays instructed the friend to “[d]elete that off YouTube. Coach Sac knows about it. Seriously delete it.” Also that day, Mays reportedly texted the victim to say that “Reno just called my house and said I raped you.”
The next day, the overconfident Mays texted a friend that “I got Reno. He took care of it and sh– ain’t gonna happen, even if they take it to court. Like he was joking about it so I’m not worried.”
In yet another text exchange on the fourteenth, Mays was asked, “What did Reno say to you?” The quarterback replied, “Nothing really. We have to stay in for a week. Next time any of us do anything we are suspended from games for a month. But I feel like he took care of it for us.” Saccoccia gave character testimony for the two players at the hearing that determined that their case would proceed in juvenile court rather than criminal court, and he evidently did not discipline the pair until eight games into the 10-game regular season.
The School Board’s Bad Judgment
The coach has said little publicly about the August party but reportedly denies that he knew about the rapes before charges were brought against the two players. According to the New York Times, he grew heated in November at a reporter who pressed him about why he did not immediately discipline the pair; the coach reportedly responded with expletives and “You made me mad now. You’re going to get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.”
If the grand jury indicts Saccoccia based on the quarterback’s text messages and possibly other evidence, the indictment would mean that the prosecutor established “probable cause.” Probable cause exists when the grand jury reasonably believes that a particular person committed the crime charged. The coach would have an opportunity to defend himself and present his side of the story at trial, where the prosecutor could secure a conviction only by proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a burden higher than probable cause.
“The Boundaries of Socially Appropriate Behavior”
In cases such as the one now unfolding in Steubenville, two vital child-protective purposes underlie the school board’s responsibility to hold coaches, teachers and other school authorities to the mandates of the child abuse reporting laws.
For one thing, these laws help protect children from serious maltreatment because a perpetrator unidentified today remains free to inflict future abuse on the same child or on others. If “rape crews” truly roam Steubenville effectively unrestrained by the law, future youthful victims faced potential danger beginning immediately after the August 11 parties, even before the two football players were charged.
Aside from child protection, the Supreme Court stressed more than 60 years ago that school boards are charged with “educating the young for citizenship.” Coaches, teachers and other public school authorities help transmit what Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. called “an early understanding of the relevance of the social compact of respect for the rights of others.” This early understanding depends on mentoring about healthy interpersonal relationships, including how boys and men should treat girls and women.
Mentoring takes place both inside and outside the classroom. “The process of educating our youth for citizenship in public schools,” the Supreme Court explains, “is not confined to books, the curriculum, or civics class; schools must teach by example the shared values of a civilized social order.” “‘[F]undamental values’”, the Court continues, “must . . . take into account consideration of the sensibilities of others” as school officials fulfill their responsibility in “teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior.” The “basic educational mission” emphasizes teaching the “habits and manners of civility.”
Regardless of what the Ohio grand jury decides in the next few weeks, Steubenville’s school board sent the wrong message late last month by appearing to circle the wagons while grand jurors probe potentially wide systemic failures to protect children and transmit fundamental social values.
(Sources: Julie Macur and Nate Schweber, Rape Case Unfolds On Web and Splits City, N.Y. Times, Dec. 17, 2012, p. D1; Laura Collins, Steubenville Investigators Now Searching the School for Grand Jury Evidence in Rape Case, MailOnline, Apr. 25, 2013; Ohio Revised Code sections 2151.031, 1251.99, 2151.421, 2929.24; Alexander Abad-Santos, Steubenville’s Football Coach Just Got a Two-Year Contract Extension, The Atlantic, Apr. 22, 2013; Douglas E. Abrams, Recognizing the Public Schools’ Authority to Discipline Students’ Off-Campus Cyberbullying of Classmates, 37 New England Journal on Civil and Criminal Confinement (2011)]