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Utah college performs play based on Steubenville High rape case

Published October 30, 2015 5:18 pm

Sexual crime • Production calls for an uncomfortable conversation about assault.
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The rape of a 16-year-old girl broadcast on Facebook and Twitter is at the heart of a new play at the University of Utah.

Student actors hope the production will change the way their classmates, teachers and others talk about sexual assault — and force them to acknowledge that it is happening on their campus.

Even before Friday's opening, the message had begun to sink in.



"It's a real thing that could happen to anybody," said Torin Scoffield, who plays a high school football player and perpetrator. "And no amount of dressing right or not drinking a lot is going to change that."

Scoffield's role made him reconsider his own history of joking now and then that "no means yes."

"The hashtags that were used in the play, I said a couple of those," he said with a grimace, referring to the production's use of social media tags including "it's not rape if she's passed out."

In hindsight, "I hate that," Scoffield said after a rehearsal Thursday. "I took that feeling and just kind of put that into my research and my work."

Dramaturge Martine Green-Rogers chimed in. "That's the hope," she said, that the play "will illuminate these things we take for granted, these jokes that we make."

Now, Scoffield is encouraging friends to come see his show and watch the "The Hunting Ground," a documentary questioning whether universities have done enough to curb sexual assault.

Nationwide, one in five undergraduate women say they experienced unwanted sexual contact while in college, according to results of a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll released in June. But statistics suggest few instances come to the attention of police. On Utah campuses, only a handful of sexual assaults are reported each year, data from the schools show.

The state has come under federal scrutiny nonetheless. Federal investigators are coming to Westminster College next week after a student filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, saying the school mishandled the student's sexual assault case in 2013.

It is not the only Utah campus to receive such attention.

In Logan this week, a former Utah State University fraternity president pleaded guilty to forcible sexual abuse after being accused of taking advantage of female party guests who were placed under his care because they could not take care of themselves. Another former student faces charges that he raped two women.

At the school's branch in Price, three student-athletes are suspended and a school counselor is on leave after police said a woman may have been assaulted at a party in a school dormitory. USU-Eastern is looking into whether the counselor hindered the campus police investigation. Fellow partygoers shared photos of the woman on social media, showing her apparently unconscious with her head in a trash can, according to a police report.

The U. is one of about a dozen campuses nationwide to host a production of "Good Kids," based on the 2012 assault and cover-up by high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio. The case is notable for he role social media played — and the apparent cover-up by many in the small Ohio town.

In the play, written by Naomi Iizuka, the victim meets the perpetrators at a Friday night party, only to have her assault posted on the Internet hours later.

It's meant for a college audience and has appeared at the universities of Michigan, Wisconsin and Maryland, among others. Ohio State University also has a production this semester.

"It could happen to you," the victim tells classmates. Her fellow students disagree.

There are no "good guy" characters in the production, notes director Julie Rada, which she hopes will make people reconsider their assumptions.

"We have this notion that sexual assault happens in back alleys and by strangers," she said, "when in fact it might be that nice guy you just met."

Cast and crew viewed video of the 2012 crime that eventually led to convictions in juvenile court. The footage shows the victim undressed and groped as the players jeer and laugh.

"It made me sick," said senior acting major Carson Kohler, who plays the victim's friend and had not heard about the Ohio case until this semester. "It was like, 'Well how come I didn't hear about this?' "

Kohler, her fellow actors, and others involved in the play received training and counseling from the off-campus Rape Recovery Center, as well as U. victim advocates.

"The student voice is so powerful," said Katie Stiel, program manager for the U.'s Center for Student Wellness. Stiel counseled actors on how to intervene if they think someone is in danger of getting raped.

After student government leaders last year said they wanted to see more resources for sexual violence survivors, Stiel's budget grew enough to hire a pair of full-time victim advocates.

"When students rally behind an issue, specifically a violence issue," she said, "I think that's where administrators pay attention."

Stiel and the theater department say calling attention to the issue requires additional sensitivity toward audience members, too. It will have victim advocates stationed in the lobby for most, if not all, performances, Rada said.

A panel discussion was set to follow Friday's show, with representatives from the Student Wellness Center, the Women's Resource Center and victim advocates. On Saturday, the play will be followed by training for bystanders.

"I want to see more of those conversations happening on campus," Stiel said. "And I think they are."

aknox@sltrib.com

Twitter:@anniebknox

 

 

 

 

 

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