The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

State News

September 1, 2013

How universities are learning from the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal

— As they watched Penn State struggle to contain a child sex-abuse scandal that ruined its once-pristine name and took down the mightiest of college coaches, schools around the country realized they needed to examine what they were doing so they wouldn’t see their reputations destroyed, as well.

At Mississippi, administrators passed a rule stating nobody 18 or older could have one-on-one contact with a minor.

At Kansas, they rewrote the language in their bylaws stating, in no uncertain terms, that any employee who didn’t comply with rules about reporting sex crimes could be fired.

To keep better tabs on who comes and goes from its campus, Stanford started running all its kids camps in-house instead of letting coaches run them independently.

And Southern California brought in Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who wrote the report on the failings at Penn State, to brief top brass on what good policies and rules should look like.

In all, 55 of 69 Bowl Championship Series football schools – 79.7 percent of those playing at the highest level in college – either reviewed or strengthened their policies regarding minors on campus in the wake of the case involving Jerry Sandusky, an Associated Press review found.

“The conversation started the minute the Penn State situation was made public,” said Mississippi associate athletic director Lynnette Johnson, who called the 18-and-over policy the linchpin of the changes at their campus in Oxford, Miss. “We’ve been looking at our policies for quite some time and we wanted to build something that’s comprehensive, manageable and can actually be enforced.”

While schools were rewriting their rules, no fewer than 32 state governments were also reviewing their statutes, with at least 18 of those adopting new laws and most of them adding university employees and volunteers to the list of those required to report child sex abuse.

In November 2011, Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant coach, was arrested on 40 child sexual abuse counts. Additional counts were included in December, and some were dropped at the start of his trial. In the end, he was convicted on 45 of those counts and is serving a prison term of 30 to 60 years. Within days of Sandusky’s arrest, coach Joe Paterno was fired and the school president, Graham Spanier, was forced out.

A July 2012 report by Freeh detailed the flaws at Penn State and offered recommendations for change at the university. Penn State established a “Progress” website detailing the multiple changes it is making in response to the scandal and the report. 

The AP canvassed the 69 schools in the BCS conferences in 2012, along with Notre Dame, and found that, in addition to the 55 that said they reviewed or changed their rules in response to the Sandusky case, another 12 had recently done that work in response to a push from the U.S. Department of Education or because of incidents that occurred on their own campuses or laws passed in their states.

“We didn’t want to be in a position where we could say it couldn’t happen here,” said Mark Land, spokesman at Indiana University, one of the universities that reviewed and beefed up its policies. “Penn State is a great university and does great things, and it happened there, so we felt like if we didn’t learn something from Penn State, that was on us.”

Oklahoma and South Carolina, reported no action: South Carolina sent AP a copy of its sexual-harassment policy, last revised in 2010; Oklahoma said its policies are under constant scrutiny. 

Before the scandal at Penn State, the university had a long list of rules that were in line with what existed at other schools. Despite that, the Freeh Report noted that 234 of 735 coaches paid to work at summer sports camps in 2009 didn’t have their required background checks completed before their camp began.

David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center said anecdotes like that help explain why new policies and laws are important, but maybe not as important as the light shed on the issue of child sex abuse because of the Sandusky case.

“I don’t think the problem at Penn State was that they didn’t have enough rules, or that they didn’t have a mandatory law that required this reporting,” Finkelhor said. “I think the problem was that they didn’t have a higher level of awareness about the problem itself and they thought they could kind of get away with the way they were handling it.”

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