The XX Factor

An Alleged Sexual Assault at a Georgia High School Rehashes the Lessons of Steubenville

A group of protesters stand outside juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio, March 14, 2013.
A group of protesters stand outside juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio, March 14, 2013.

Photo by Jason Cohn/Reuters

Last month, two dozen Georgia high school students headed to a post-prom celebration at a rented resort cabin stocked with booze. By morning, according to local police, an 18-year-old woman had been isolated in a room and sexually assaulted by three other students—all prominent athletes at Calhoun High—who left her passed-out and injured from the attack. Other students present that night reportedly witnessed the attack, but said nothing. As reports of the night proliferated on social media, local residents created the #standforHER hashtag to voice support for the victim and criticize local police forces for failing to respond quickly enough. Two weeks after the attack, the three men, all 18, had been charged with aggravated sexual battery in the case and barred from their own graduation ceremony.

The allegations in the assault case—a drunken high school party, a pack of male athletes—and a social media outcry have drawn comparisons to Steubenville. But in light of the quick arrests, Calhoun is now being billed as the anti-Steubenville, a town where even star athletes are subject to swift justice and community members lend their support to victims, not their attackers. “While [the incident] had many of the elements of a Steubenville-esque embarrassment, this time around, things are different,” Erin Gloria Ryan wrote at Jezebel. “Local authorities have filed serious charges against the three men who participated in the assault, and have promised that more serious charges are forthcoming.” 

“Authorities shouldn’t be applauded for doing their jobs,” Ryan added, “but given this country’s embarrassing history of prioritizing sports achievement over the right of women to not be raped, when police actually give a damn, I reflexively feel like I should applaud. That’s how low the bar is.”

Police not giving a damn is the narrative that coalesced around the town of Steubenville after a high school girl was sexually assaulted by football players at a house party in August of 2012, earning the town the scrutiny of local bloggersNew York Times reporters, and Anonymous hackers. As the world watched, the investigation into the assault revealed deep, systematic failures in the town’s school system’s handling of rape, and five school officials, including the Steubenville city schools’ superintendent, were later indicted for tampering with evidence, obstructing justice, or failing to report child abuse in relation to the 2012 case or other incidents.

But as the dust cleared, there was little evidence that police mishandled the case. In fact, the Steubenville police response was almost identical to the one that’s being praised in Calhoun. In Steubenville, the rape occurred on Aug. 11; the victim’s parents reported it to police on Aug. 14; on Aug. 22, police told the public that 16-year-old football players Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond had been arrested and charged in connection to the crime. The investigation didn’t stop there. Police Chief William McCafferty appeared on local television begging more witnesses to come forward, but few did. (Three other boys who witnessed the attack were ultimately granted immunity for providing key testimony in the case.) According to the New York Times, in the course of the investigation, police confiscated 15 cell phones and two iPads from students connected to the party, recovered text messages and photographs shared between dozens of people, and interviewed almost 60 students, administrators, and parents about the incident. Most of this happened months before the crime exploded on the pages of the Times or even caught the attention of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. After Mays and Richmond were convicted last year, Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine vowed that the investigation was not over, and more charges could still come.

In the wake of the Calhoun attack, the sheriff of Gilmer County, Georgia, explained why cases like these can take a few weeks to materialize into charges, even when police are using all available resources to investigate them. “In a case, especially involving teenagers or young people, once you make an arrest, the information flow tends to shut down. We wanted to get all we could get before we put people in jail,” sheriff Stacey Nicholson said. “This has been a very emotional case, certainly for the city of Calhoun and Calhoun High School … We have worked as fast as we could work to bring an end to this case. But we did not work on Calhoun’s time or on the media’s time line.” Nicholson said he put all but one of his detectives on the case, who interviewed over 50 witnesses, culminating in a key interview that resulted in “very valuable information” leading to the arrests.

It’s too early to know whether Calhoun should be congratulated for its investigation. There’s a lot we don’t know about the behavior of the bystanders in the attack, the role of the school itself, and the city’s response. (Not all local residents are lending support to the victim; some are already calling for forgiveness for the suspects.) But the Calhoun case shows that a swift and immediate public outcry can be misplaced, as the work needed to build a strong case moves slower than the internet outrage cycle. Some of the claims aired by Anonymous in its Steubenville campaign—including the assertion that the victim was drugged during the attack, or that the webmaster of a booster website for Steubenville football may have possessed child pornography—turned out to be baseless. And Marianne Hemmeter, who prosecuted Mayes and Richmond, said that Anonymous’ widespread scrutiny of the town chilled the participation of witnesses who might otherwise have come forward.*

Steubenville showed that intense national scrutiny of a local rape case can help support important reforms, revealing systemic problems that stretch far beyond the perpetrator and the accused. But the case also suggests that observers and activists across the country should be cautious in their finger-pointing and their praise before all the facts are on the table. Seizing upon a narrative too soon—as Ariel Levy showed in her careful re-reporting of the Steubenville case, one year after the party—can interfere with the cause of justice for both suspects and victims. Is Calhoun the next Steubenville, or the anti-Steubenville? In the end, even Steubenville wasn’t what we thought it was. The full story will take more than a few weeks of rumors and arrests to reveal itself.

* Correction, June 5, 2014: This post originally misspelled the last name of prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter.