Guest column/Separating fact from fiction
The Steubenville community has been put under the microscope because of the terrible allegations of sexual assault stemming from a high school party last August that involved alcohol. It’s much more than the talk of the town – it’s become the talk of the nation.
With the lurid allegations and social media discussions, it’s really no surprise that the case has gained such attention. What is surprising is that there has been so much misinformation and sensationalizing, led by individuals who don’t even know our city.
Unfortunately, much of the coverage and discussion of this case has been based on bad information. It’s been like a disturbing game of “telephone,” where one person says something that’s inaccurate and it’s picked up and added to by someone else. And everyone who’s ever played that game knows what happens at the end the facts get distorted and twisted by the repeated re-telling.
That’s why city officials have stepped up our efforts to keep everyone interested in the story accurately informed using a new fact-based website we created, SteubenvilleFacts.org. The site doesn’t discuss the evidence in the case because that’s best left to the parties in the court action. But it does calmly recite some simple underlying facts about the background of how the investigation was handled.
We knew this was necessary when the rumors and web chatter began containing such ridiculous claims that can be easily disproved. For example, many outsiders claimed that the city runs the Steubenville City School District or that city officials have the power to fire the sheriff or the prosecutor.
Anyone who knows the law in Ohio knows that our city government and police department have no control or say in school district, county sheriff’s office or county prosecuting attorney’s office operations. Each is an individual entity.
The school district is governed by the school board, which is elected by the residents of Steubenville; the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department is controlled by the elected sheriff; and the prosecuting attorney’s office is run by the elected prosecutor. The sheriff and prosecutor are elected by the residents of Jefferson County.
Other rumors claimed that graduates and boosters of the Big Red football program were controlling the investigation. As we point out on SteubenvilleFacts.org, most of the people leading the case aren’t even from Steubenville and attended high school elsewhere.
Our city police department received the first complaint about the sexual assault allegations, so it began the investigation by partnering with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, a division of the Ohio attorney general’s office.
Let’s remember that arrests were made in this case within eight days of the incident being reported. Let’s also not forget that the case is slated to go to trial next month. Given the complexity of the case, a criminal trial occurring within six months is remarkable.
Regardless of what some people who want to run down our city might claim, there’s no government conspiracy to protect people allegedly involved in this incident. City leaders, like most residents of Steubenville, want justice to be done and look to the court system to do the right thing under the law.
I’m pleased to report that our efforts to get basic facts like these out to the public have been very successful. Within 24 hours of setting up SteubenvilleFacts.org, the site received wide media coverage and there were more than 150,000 visitors to the site. Traffic came from CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and numerous local media outlets. The website has even been the focus of an article from a newspaper in Great Britain.
But the truth does not always have unanimous support. Despite our effort to carefully list essential information about how the laws and procedures work, there are some people who don’t want those facts distributed. They don’t want people to know the truth because, if people did know, most of the rumors would wither and die in the sunlight.
That is why there have been thousands of attempts to hack or otherwise illegally shut down the website. The site has remained intact nonetheless and the truth about what has happened to date is still there for people to read. We’ve even been updating the site with new information as it becomes available.
People who want to stop you from learning more at SteubenvilleFacts.org are showing that they’re more interested in skewing media coverage than making sure everyone knows the facts.
Steubenville city government prides itself on being transparent. We have and will continue to speak to media when appropriate and permitted.
Ohio public records law ensures that citizens will have the right, once the case is finished, to review nearly the entire case file. Some public records regarding the case already are available.
The ultimate responsibility for city government sits with the city council, whose meetings are open to the public. We hope responsible citizens will continue to seek our truthful, accurate information, and we will continue to provide an open line of communication with the city.
(Davison is Steubenville’s city manager.)