Universities should learn from Penn State fallout

On November 22, 2011

In the aftermath of the Penn State sex abuse scandal, where a failure in communications may have allowed child abuse to continue unchecked, U.S. universities are considering policy changes to prevent such incidences from reoccurring.

Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had his long legacy tarnished and career ended for the role he played in the scandal. Paterno was told as early as 2002 that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky may have been molesting young boys. Paterno passed the information to athletic director Tim Curley and vice president of business and finance - including university police - Gary Schultz, then left it at that. Neither one contacted law enforcement.

While universities may be tempted to handle allegations internally for the sake of protecting the reputation of the school or, perhaps in this case, its football program, the first step when university employees suspect or witness a crime should always be to contact police.

Penn State is facing federal and NCAA investigations, and the faculty senate has called for their own independent investigation. The school will continue to feel the fallout from the scandal, which has also cost University President Graham B. Spanier his job. Other universities would be wise to act now and change the way they handle reports of abuse or other crimes.

The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary announced on his blog soon after the Penn State scandal broke that he planned to change the school's policy handbook, which recommended employees who suspect child abuse contact their supervisors, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The new policy will recommend contacting law enforcement immediately.

The presidents of the University of Michigan and Clarion University of Pennsylvania sent out campus-wide emails encouraging witnesses of abuse to take action, according to the Chronicle.

"If you see, hear about, or know about possible abuse in any form, including child abuse, on our campus, please contact university police," Karen M. Whitney, president of Clarion, said in an email to employees. "After making this phone call, inform your immediate supervisor."

This is how all university employees should act. USF policy requires reports of sexual battery to be investigated by University Police.

An important role of university administrators is to put their school in the best possible light, but this push for good publicity should never lead to cover-ups or lackluster responses.

Even in cases where the crime is not so egregious, university responses should always be handled seriously and whistleblowers should be protected.

Whether changes come from the state or administrative level, the reputation of the university should not be put ahead of the safety of individuals. Penn State is learning the hard way that not dealing with a damaging issue when it first comes up is the worst possible public relations decision.

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