Torrington, Conn., a town only 40 miles north of New Haven, has attracted major media attention during the last month for a statutory rape case.
In late February, two 18-year-old members of Torrington High School’s football team were arrested under sexual assault charges for allegedly committing statutory rape against two 13-year-old girls. Coming on the heels of a similar situation in Steubenville, Ohio, the case has generated controversy across the nation after it was revealed that the alleged victims experienced cyberbullying from dozens of their classmates in the wake of the arrests.
The Register Citizen, the first media outlet to report the rape charges and the first to report that the alleged victims were being cyberbullied, published screenshots of disparaging tweets from public Twitter accounts, many of which are controlled by students younger than 18. Some of the tweets called the 13 year olds “whore[s]” or blamed them for the older boys’ arrests.
According to Matt DeRienzo, the Register Citizen’s editor, adults in the town were outraged about the alleged rapes, but even more upset by the cyberbullying.
“The reaction that we got was surprisingly unified in outrage that this happened in Torrington,” he said.
DeRienzo added that many young people were upset at the paper for publishing tweets from underage students without concealing their identities. But he said the paper decided not to conceal the tweeters’ identities because their messages were already in the public sphere, and it hoped to provoke a conversation in the community about “what kind of environment existed” online.
Emily Bazelon, a professor at Yale Law School and the author of a recent book on bullying in the Internet era, said that cyberbullying often poses a problem for schools, which face legal and practical difficulties in punishing students for what they say online or outside of school. Criminal prosecution for cyberbullying is even more rare, she said.
“It’s important to remember that most of time, when teenagers write things like this, no one does notice,” Bazelon said.
Bazelon added that many teenagers do not understand the legal definition of statutory rape, which in Connecticut states that a person between the ages of 13 and 15 cannot give valid consent to have sexual contact with anyone who is more than three years older.
With heightened concern about cyberbullying and sexual assault has come an increased emphasis on prevention. Barbara Speigal, the executive director of the Torrington’s Susan B. Anthony Project, which educates students about healthy relationships, said that her organization has stepped up its activities in Torrington High School since the rape allegations came to light. In Torrington, she said, programming focuses on concepts such as cyberbullying and consent, and the Project tries to teach students that victims are “never to be blamed” for sexual assault.
In a March 27 letter to the Torrington High School Community on the school’s website, principal Joanne Creedon urged students to exercise caution and respect when posting online, and she even encouraged them to consider closing their social media accounts. Following the charges, it should be “crystal clear” that social media is a “public forum” instead of private communication, she added.
In 2012, one of the two boys arrested in the Torrington case was charged with robbery and assault in a unrelated incident.