Conn. High School Football Players in Rape Case Gain Social Media Support, Igniting Debate

PHOTO: Torrington High School studentsAaliyahhx/Twitter
Torrington High School students show their support for fellow students and rape defendants through social media.

Across social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, students in Torrington, Conn., continue to express support for 18-year-old high school football players Edgar Gonzalez and Joan Toribio, who were charged with the sexual assault of two 13-year-old girls. That support has touched off even more controversy in the community.

Using the hashtag #FreeEdgar, peers of the accused are posting messages and photos in defense of Gonzalez, who remains jailed.

At Torrington High School's annual Dodgeball charity tournament March 22, students are seen displaying the number 21 with their fingers, which was Gonzalez' football jersey number. The picture was posted to Instagram by the user aaliyahhx, according to The Register Citizen.

Gonzalez and Toribio were arrested in February and charged with felony second-degree sexual assault, among other crimes. A third student, a 17-year-old boy, was charged with second degree sexual assault on one of the 13-year-old girls involved in the case.

A state judge sealed the details of the accusations from the public, the Associated Press reported.

Gonzalez is in custody at New Haven Correctional Center and is due back in court on April 2. Toribio posted $100,000 bail. He is under electronic monitoring and has a court date scheduled for April 23.

Both have pled not guilty to the charges.

Similarities can be drawn between the social media buzz surrounding allegations against Gonzalez and Toribio and the recent convictions of the Steubenville, Ohio, high school football players, where both Twitter and Instagram played an integral role in the trial.

The victims in both cases have also been the target of cyber bullying, as students grapple to understand the severity of the allegations put forth against their classmates.

"Even if it was all his fault, what was a 13 year old girl doing hanging around 18 year old guys," said a Twitter user with the handle @LoryyRamirez on Feb. 21, reported The Register Citizen.

"It's crazy what there [sic] saying about Edgar ! We all just want him free #freeEdgar !!!," posted a Twitter user with the name @CookieBrianda on March 20.

Now, school and community officials in Torrington are planning a series of community forums to address cyber bullying, statutory rape, and social media in wake of the online reactions surrounding the sexual assault accusations.

"There seem to be murmurs of confusion over definitions of what, unfortunately, statutory rape is and what bullying is," said Kenneth Traub, chairman of the board of education at Torrington Public Schools. "So we want to make sure everybody understands and everybody is on the same page."

Traub said that the board of education is working with the mayor's office, the Torrington police department, as well the local advocacy groups, to organize a series of community meetings to discuss these difficult topics in an open forum.

"The problem is these topics are so huge, and the different levels of topics we have to discuss -- one meeting isn't enough," he said. "Each topic takes probably five hours [to discuss], so we need to know that we have the time to accomplish it."

Traub said Torrington Public Schools faculty and trained professionals from the Susan B. Anthony Project, a local domestic and sexual abuse advocacy center, will head up some of the discussions. But social media is the most difficult issue to tackle.

One of the key messages that needs addressing in these discussions is that nothing that happens online is private, said Stephanie Barksdale, executive director of the United Way of Northwest Connecticut, a community impact network that plans to assist in these conversations within the Torrington school district.

"We have several victims in the case," Barksdale said. "We have an unfortunate cyber bullying situation going on not just with the 13-year-olds being bullied, but now the people who were doing the bullying are being bullied."

"Lives can be hurt and lives can be ruined with what you post online," she said. "We need parents to be especially aware of what their kids are doing in an online setting."

"We need to further a definition so that the kids themselves understand," said Traub. "It doesn't matter what age you are, 13 is never OK."

Torrington High School Principal Joanne Creedon sent out a letter to the community to outline the steps being taken for the school district.

"Torrington High School is in the spotlight, but sadly for the wrong reasons -- allegations of violent criminal acts and subsequent cyber expressions of hurtful, irresponsible, and grossly insensitive remarks that reflect a total disregard for victim rights have flooded the media," Creedon wrote in a letter to students and parents.

"For everyone's sake, we need to get that spotlight on the good," Creedon said.