Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On Legacies and Lessons Learned at Penn State

Beaver Stadium, Penn State University Main Campus
November 3, 2011

I wrote part of this post yesterday morning while sitting in a Panera Bread in Altoona, Pa., a mere 43 minutes from Penn State's main campus.

These days, I'm up in this area fairly often. I took this photo of Penn State's football stadium last Thursday, not even a week ago, when I was visiting the campus for work. "Heading out to Penn State to spend the day in the happiest of valleys!" I facebooked, for the benefit of my more-than-a-few-bleeding-blue-and-white-friends. "Spectacular day at PSU, here at a little stadium."

On Thursday, it was so damn easy to be in awe of the place - even if you, like me, have even the remotest of connections to Happy Valley. Thursday was my first stop at Penn State since 1989, when I called myself a Penn Stater for one memorable summer semester. Home for college summer break would have meant a new part of a new state where I knew only one soul, and I wanted to experience a bigger school than that of the 110 rolling acres where I was enrolled.

So even though I was at Penn State briefly (then and now), I still felt (feel? hard to know what tense to use there) a kind of magic about the place. Perhaps (and he hates to admit it, but it's true) it is because Penn State plays a very important role in the story of How I Met The Husband. I have good memories (the ones I can remember) of those summer days when I studied Plato and psychology - two subjects that came in handy as I dated a frat guy with a fast car - and as I worked as (and was fired as) a telemarketer begging people to renew their subscriptions to Prevention magazine.   

(Prevention. Of all ironic things.)  

Fast forward the VHS tape 22 years to my sitting here in Panera a couple miles away, and I admit that I'm coming at this Penn State scandal from a place tinged with a bit of nostalgia - but also as someone who is a parent, as someone who has worked previously in the domestic violence and child abuse fields. I am simultaneously horrified and utterly fascinated at how this is playing out while being glued to every word of this case.  I've read the Grand Jury report in its entirety.  As a PR professional, I believe you could not script a case study better than this - nor find many more examples of atrocious crisis communications bungling by certain college presidents that resemble a Keystone (state) Cop.  

So as I eavesdrop on the breakfast club here, every single table – and I mean, every single one – is talking about the events that have transpired and are currently unfolding a few miles to our north.  This morning, I expected to walk into the heart of JoePa country and hear unconditional support for Penn State's football coach. 

Yeah, not so much. What I'm hearing is people focusing on the issue of having a moral obligation to do more, which people here seem to feel that JoePa (and all of the parties involved) had. I happen to agree. You can argue legalities and ethics (and believe me, they are) ... but now, all of a sudden, everyone's an ethics expert, an authority on who is a mandated reporter.  

Like this guy, talking to his breakfast companion at the next table: 

"I mean, I don't know what the law is specifically called, but if you have a license, you need to report this stuff." 

"A license?"

"Yes. I'm telling you, ANYONE WITH A LICENSE."

"Well, I'm a licensed beautician. Does that mean ME?  If someone says something, do I need to call the police?"

"Yes. You have a license."

Jay-sus.  OK, so by that bungled Archie Bunker logic, that means that everyone with a driver's license.  A hunting license. A dog license.  

Yeah, not exactly.

Before we go any further, this FAQ page explains in simple, easy to understand language who is a mandated reporter in Pennsylvania. (And in my opinion, if you look at question #4, I think that's your answer right there about whether JoePa had a legal obligation to pick up the phone.)

Hell, let's just reprint it here.

Q: Am I a mandated reporter if I learn of the abuse from other than the child who was legally abused?

Yes. The child need not come before you directly in your professional or official capacity, but must be under the care, supervision, guidance or training of an agency, institution, organization or other entity with which you are affiliated. In your personal life, you may report a case as a non-mandated reporter.

And this:

Q. Do I have to know for sure that a child was abused?

No. Your responsibility is to make the report when you suspect a child is being abused. The county Children and Youth caseworker will conduct an investigation and determine whether the child was abused.

There you go. As for you people living elsewhere, this might be helpful.   Finally, there's a National Child Abuse Hotline which can be reached at 1-800-4-ACHILD. Can't get much easier than that.

We can all agree, I hope, that it is obvious that the victims in the Penn State case fell through the cracks when person after person had a chance to save them, to truly turn the course of their life around more than attending any Big 10 College Bowl football game would have done. The failure to do so is truly a tragedy with devastating, life-long consequences.  Someone, somewhere should have made that call - or intervened while the abuse was happening - and why that didn't happen in more than a decade is a bit hard to understand, to put it mildly. 

Having worked in the domestic violence and child abuse fields, sometimes I take for granted that people know what to do in such cases. The Husband and I debated at dinner last night whether people - the general public, like The Licensed Beautician and Her Dining Companion at Panera - really don't know that they have a legal - not to mention moral and ethical - obligation to report this sort of thing.

My opinion? I think that the majority of the public is clueless (or chooses not to think about this) and that the Penn State scandal illuminates the fact that people simply don't know what their legal obligations are - or, like the patron at Panera, they're downright confused or have only some of the facts.

The Husband believes that people know they should call the police.

I believe that, sad as it may be, people need to be TOLD that they need to do the right thing - and what the right thing is.

So, as clear as the language is in the FAQs I provided above (from Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania), let's boil it down even further, so that there is no misunderstanding the next time someone tells you that they "think they saw" or "weren't sure of what they saw" or whatever.

Yes, there are certain people because of their professions who are held to a higher standard for reporting requirements and what have you.  But no matter who you are, or how you earn your paycheck, or whether you hold a license to hunt or dog-sit or to cut hair, YOU HAVE A MORAL AND ETHICAL OBLIGATION to give voice to those who are being victimized, who can't speak for themselves. And don't tell me these traumatized kids of 8 years old and whatnot should have said something - because the majority of child abuse victims NEVER say a word - and why? Because they're scared, they're in the grip of people who are Important, they see what happens when you speak up and that in the end, nothing happens.

Penn State's a place where the very culture has placed people on pedestals for decades, and it is truly that culture of myth-making and creating gods while protecting one's image and brand that has brought that institution to its worst day of reckoning. I don't know if Penn State ever truly recovers from this. But I know this:

If this case leads the mere mortals among us to realize that everyone is a mandated reporter, that we all have the responsibility to raise up our own consciousness, to speak up for what is right and moral, then it will be just one win in a game that will continue to be played until the end of time.

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Anonymous said...

Right on. Preach it, sista.

I am so glad Joe is deciding to retire. It's the right thing to do...if only he realized the right thing to do before now.

Alison said...

Thanks for this. I think I'll share it with my Gender and Violence class. I wonder how much non-reporting happens because people want to believe that something that terrible simply couldn't be happening. I mean, we have loads of stories of college students being told by various people in positions of power that something this bad didn't, in fact, happen to them.

My students who are doing service work with our local agency that provides child abuse victim services have said repeatedly that the kids they work with "seem normal," "just play with toys like any other kid"--they've been surprised that you can't tell.

Zee said...


Thank you for writing this.