Preventing another Steubenville

April 16, 2013

Head football coach Ron Barney talks with juniors Ryan Alvarez (left) and Steven Christensen (right) after a team meeting at Mesa Verde High School. Photo: Genevieve Bookwalter/California Health Report.

Coaches work with athletes on respect, relationships and how to treat girls.

By Genevieve Bookwalter
California Health Report

The football coach called a special meeting after two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl last month.

The story made national headlines: two star athletes were convicted of raping their classmate while she was drunk. One was found guilty of sending photos of her, nude, to friends with his cell phone. Some saw the crime and wrote about it on Twitter. No one stopped it.

The football players at Mesa Verde High School in Citrus Heights were part of Coaching Boys Into Men, a program that works with high school athletes and encourages them to develop healthy relationships and better respect themselves, their friends, girls and women. Their coach wanted to know: What did they think of the case?

“What if something like that were to happen at our school? How would you make that feel? What kind of steps are we taking to make sure this doesn’t happen?” said Ron Barney, the high school’s head football coach and athletic director for San Juan Unified School District.

The conversation quickly steered toward ways the students could monitor themselves and each other to prevent a similar situation from happening in Citrus Heights, Barney said.

“That’s kind of how that conversation went. That right there is a really good indicator,” Barney said. “I like the way they responded.”

“Coaching Boys Into Men” began in 2001 as a part of Futures Without Violence, a San Francisco nonprofit that aims to prevent the abuse of women and children around the world. The program works with athletic coaches nationwide who then talk with their players — on the bus, in the weight room or during practice, among other places — about respect and healthy relationships, especially with the opposite sex.

“This is a program that really is youth leadership for young men,” said clinical research coordinator Catrina Virata, with Futures Without Violence. To be successful, she said, it also requires coaches who are “about the care and development of their athletes.”

The program has received newfound attention in recent months, as current events thrust popular high school athletes into the spotlight. Three Saratoga Union High School football players—one of whom had transferred to another school—were arrested last week. The group allegedly sexually assaulted a classmate and took photos of the attack. They texted the photos to friends and the girl, Audrey Pott, 15, committed suicide.

In addition, within days of the Steubenville verdict, two high school football players in Connecticut were arrested for allegedly raping a 13-year-old girl

Futures Without Violence works actively with about 60 high schools nationwide on Coaching Boys Into Men, and the program continues to grow. Program leaders hope to move into three high schools in San Francisco Unified School District this fall.

But the number of schools participating in the 12-week program likely is much larger than that, said Sarah Pritchard, who runs public education campaigns and programs. Futures Without Violence offer their resources online for free to any coach who wants it, and many more have downloaded or ordered the information.

“People are just taking it and using it in their communities without necessarily telling us,” Pritchard said. “Typically when we hear from people is when they have questions or some kind of challenge, which is great. That’s what we’re here for.”

Interest in the program has grown, Pritchard said, since the Steubenville case made national news.

Coaching Boys Into Men consists of weekly lessons that the coach can discuss with players on the bus, in the weight room or at another convenient time. Barney said he introduces the lessons on Mondays, after players watch film of the Friday night games.

Barney said the lessons could be as short as 15 minutes or stretch much longer, depending on what students have to say. The first lesson consists of one word: respect.

“When you first start to do it, start to explain it, there’s apprehension,” Barney said. But as the lessons continue, “it becomes empowering, especially amongst the students.”

Organizers’ biggest challenge, said Virata, is helping coaches find time to put the program in place. With many coaching multiple sports and teaching larger classes, some just can’t fit it in, she said.

“The coaches who opted out really just did not have the time,” Virata said. The program often is most successful, she said, when a school principal or district’s athletic director makes it a priority.

At Rosemont High School in Sacramento, current events prompted football coaches to consider the program again next year, after taking some time off.

“Especially after what happened in Ohio, the whole coaching staff got together and said, ‘we gotta do this again,’” said Thomas McKenna, assistant coach for the varsity football team. Many players are growing up without a father figure, McKenna said. For some of them, athletic coaches fill that roll.

So McKenna also called a meeting of football players as the Steubenville case hit the news. He wasn’t pleased with their responses.

“I asked them, ‘who would try to hook up with a girl if she was really drunk like that?’ And a few of them raised their hands.”

“No,” McKenna recalled saying. “You’re going to do the right thing, which is get her out of there.”

At Mesa Verde, Barney said he sees the program’s influence spilling into players’ personal lives.

“It’s as simple as someone stepping up and saying, ‘no, Boys to Men, remember?’ It happens right on our campus. At lunch time it happens,” he said.

Students said the program has helped them to build better relationships and act with integrity.

Junior Steven Christensen, 17, a defensive lineman, said he doesn’t hear guys use “the ‘b’ word” to describe girls as much anymore.

Junior Ryan Alvarez, 16, who plays tight end and linebacker, said the football team has toned down “Freshman Friday”: a day when freshmen find themselves stuffed into lockers, trashcans or worse, he said.

“We look at it as immature and pointless,” Alvarez said. “One day those kids, you never know, they could be as big as you. You could see them in the future and it could escalate and get out of hand.”

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