Thoughts on Penn State

The whole Sandusky/Penn State story has been tough for me to watch. On the one hand, I think it’s absolutely reprehensible to not report suspected child abuse – especially when that abuse is potentially sexual in nature. (I was trained as a mandatory reporter at one point. It was a role I took/take very seriously.) On the other hand, I was a huge PSU and Paterno fan. I hoped that this whole situation was more complicated than it seemed initially. That it was full of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and misinterpretations that would somehow explain how this terrible situation was allowed to continue for so long. It might sound naive, but I know enough about organizational politics to believe that it really was possible for someone to think they had done their due diligence, and yet have it be misunderstood somewhere up the line. Unfortunately, it’s become very clear, with the release of the Freeh Report, that there were no widespread misunderstandings that can explain it away. I’m still reading through the commentary from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and I haven’t read the entire report yet, but everything I’ve seen so far says that a small group of powerful men (men who were supposed to be responsible for what happened on their watch) chose not to do something.

The really complicated part is determining where the gap between what each person did do and what each person should have done lies. It’s easy in hindsight to say certain things should have sent up red flags years and years ago. It’s a lot harder to see those things in the moment. It’s also very difficult to reconcile the person you know (and trust) with the image of someone who is doing horrible things. Sports Illustrated has a great article on the report, addressing both the content and the potential shortcomings of Freeh’s investigation. It’s available here.

I don’t excuse anyone’s actions. But I’m also not shocked. Anyone who is shocked about the failure of an academic institution to report crimes should look at some of the most infamous Cleary Act violations. (The standard reference is to the Laura Dickinson case at Eastern Michigan University, but more run of the mill examples are the 2011 violations at University of Vermont, University of Northern Iowa, and Washington State University, summarized here.)

For the record – I love working in higher ed. I know I work at a university in part because I am legitimately dedicated to the success of our students. That success includes ensuring their safety. I would report something I didn’t think was right in a heartbeat – either to my supervisor or campus security. And if I ever saw something that would suggest child abuse, I would be on the phone immediately calling it in (and hopefully physically stopping it). That being said – I work in a library. There is no excuse for physical contact or nudity in my sphere of influence, so it’s pretty clear when something is not right. I would imagine that line gets a little less easily defined when in the athletic department.

Edited to add:

I’ve been sitting on this for about a week. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t misconstruing anything, as more information came out. Honestly – the more I hear, the worse it gets. The worst thing I’ve heard so far (apart from Paterno renegotiating a favorable contract AFTER the investigation started) is the story about the two custodians who saw something, discussed it, and decided not to report it because they were worried about being fired. I know jobs are hard to come by, and I know a job in facilities at a university is a good job, but come on. You see a child being abused and you don’t do ANYTHING? I would be shocked if these men weren’t unionized (most staff in academic institutions are), and they would have had backing from their union and could have fought it. I get culture, I get how hard it would have been to go against that culture, but how could you live with yourself?

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