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Schultz: Steubenville digs in

Published: Friday, April 26, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Last month, after a trial that garnered worldwide coverage, two high-school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, were sentenced to youth prison for raping a 16-year-old girl.

She was so intoxicated at the time of the attacks that she only discovered what had happened to her after the cellphone photos and crude text messages began circulating.

That is only one of the many troubling details in this case, which is not over yet.

Next week, a grand jury will begin calling witnesses as it weighs more charges.

Surely, the football team’s coach, Reno Saccoccia, will be a primary target of this continued investigation.

During the trial for the convicted rapists, 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond and 17-year-old Trent Mays, Saccoccia’s name came up. A lot.

Mays had a text message on his cellphone that read: “I got Reno. He took care of it and s--- ain’t gonna happen, even if they did take it to court. Like he was joking about it so I’m not worried.”

This led many to question what Saccoccia knew, when he knew it and why he let his star players continue to suit up for games. May the next round of grand jury questioning get to the heart of those questions.

Meanwhile, in a stealth move forging Steubenville’s willful disregard for its women, the school board quietly renewed Saccoccia’s contract as director of administrative services. He remains as coach, too.

The news of Saccoccia’s contract renewal was buried in a matter-of-fact regurgitation of the board’s minutes in the Ohio Valley’s Herald Star. Fortunately, word got out quickly. Once again, this small town on the Ohio River is the focus of a round of national scorn and ridicule. As it should be, says this mournful Ohioan.

In a story published last December, New York Times reporters Juliet Macur and Nate Schweber described this exchange with Steubenville’s coach:

“When asked again about the players involved and why he chose not to discipline them, he became agitated.

“ ‘You made me mad now,’ he said, throwing in several expletives as he walked from the high school to his car.

“Nearly nose to nose with a reporter, he growled: ‘You’re going to get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.’ ”

After news broke of Saccoccia’s contract renewal, an online petition went up demanding that Saccoccia be fired. As of Wednesday afternoon, it had more than 135,000 signatures. A petition supporting him had 721 signatures. Online furor should not prompt Saccoccia’s demise, but it does telegraph how badly Steubenville officials continue to respond to this tragedy.

Or not respond.

Christopher Evans, an editorial writer for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, got nowhere this week trying to talk to Saccoccia.

“If I haven’t said anything since August, why would I talk now?” he said.

When Evans said evidence suggests that Saccoccia knew about Mays’ cellphone texts, the coach said, “I’ve got no comment.” End of interview.

I had even worse luck Wednesday trying to reach Edward Littlejohn Sr., the president of the school board.

First, I called the school district’s main number and was told that the only way to talk to Littlejohn is to leave a message in a generic voice mailbox. Done.

Next, I called the karate studio owned by Littlejohn and left two messages. I mistakenly called the law offices of his son Edward Littlejohn Jr., who promptly returned my call and told me his father would be in the studio by 4 p.m.

Shortly after 4 p.m., I called the karate studio again. When I asked for Littlejohn, the woman who answered hesitated and said, “Um, let me see.”

A few moments later, Vicki Littlejohn, Edward’s wife, was on the phone. Our exchange:

“Actually, I’m calling for Mr. Littlejohn.”

“I’m Mrs. Littlejohn.”

“Yes, but I need to speak to Mr. Littlejohn, please.”

“Well, he’s not here.”

“Your son told me he’d be in after 4.”

“Yes, well, on Wednesdays, I never know where he is. I’ll take a message.”

“May I have his cellphone number?”

“No, that won’t work. I know because I just tried. He’s in a dead zone now.”

I’ll resist the obvious metaphor and simply list the questions Littlejohn should answer:

1) Why did the school board renew Reno Saccoccia’s contract as director of administrative services?

2) Why didn’t the board at least delay this contract renewal until the grand jury finished its investigation?

3) Why didn’t the board make a public acknowledgment of the controversial nature of Saccoccia’s contract renewal and explain to Steubenville residents and the rest of the world why it thinks this coach deserves to keep his job, administrative or otherwise?

Finally, the city of Steubenville could have stood tall for its women and the men who cherish them and sent a strong message to its young people.

Instead, it has hunkered down, burnishing its reputation as a town that cares more about football than it does about the children it will launch into the world.

• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.

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