More than 15,000 children will attend academic and athletic summer camps at Penn State University in just a couple months. Those words together, "children, Penn State." It can give you the chills.
But there will be thousands of kids, and hundreds of employees. Imagine a little boy or girl at basketball, field hockey or science camp. After everything we’ve heard about what Jerry Sandusky might have done to so many other little boys in that locker room, the thought of another child being raped or molested at Penn State is even more horrifying. But what if it did happen? Is Penn State ready?
In the hectic months following the shocking child rape charges against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, Penn State began working on a new sex abuse prevention program. Anyone watching or reading the news last November knows that a culture of sexual abuse awareness was missing. Clearly defined roles and responsibilities were missing.
Training for mandated reporters -- employees who come in contact with children and are required by state law to report abuse -- begins Wednesday at Penn State. With thousands of kids coming from around Pennsylvania and beyond to Happy Valley for the summer, the timing couldn't be better.
"Safety is our number one priority, and we're happy to be a part of anything that ensures the safety of our students," says Pam Driftmier, director of PSU's academic summer camps.
But the challenge is that in any large institution with countless departments and divisions, the communication breakdown in a crisis is all too easy -- as we sadly saw late last year. Penn State is optimistic that its two-step training, which aims to get the campus ready for summer programs now but also keep counselors, faculty, coaches and other employees educated for the long-term, will address those challenges.
It sounds promising. And there's a silver lining in the fact that the tragedies have forced Penn State, and other institutions, to take a long, hard look in the mirror to evaluate the safety of children on campus. State and federal lawmakers are working to strengthen sex abuse reporting laws. Time will tell if that long, hard look produces real results, and unfortunately, it can be hard to rate a particular institution's awareness or ability to respond to a crisis. The painful reality is that it might take another devastating case for anyone to know if improved employee training or stronger sex abuse reporting laws are working.
"As a result of everything that's happened, institutions are taking a step back and figuring out what each individual role is when it comes to reporting," says Joyce Lukima, vice president of services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, one of the organizations involved in the training. "When you look at an institution with so many people, there isn't always one person who is really clearly the one [to handle reporting]. So the more people who can play a role in prevention, the better."
In the Sandusky case, most people seemed to think at the time they did the right thing and told the right person. Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who reportedly saw Sandusky raping a boy in the locker room shower, told late head coach Joe Paterno. Paterno reportedly told the athletics director Tim Curley and Gary Schulz, who oversaw the campus police. But Sandusky was never stopped, never arrested. He allegedly continued sexually abusing young boys up until his arrest last fall.
Penn State is making moves toward clarifying those dangerously murky waters. On March 26, they hired a Clery Act compliance coordinator, named after the national law that requires universities receiving federal funding to report any crime that happens on and around campus.
"It’s such a huge challenge when there is an egregious violation like this, and an institution has to completely break everything down and then rebuild," says Alison Kiss, executive director of Security On Campus, an organization devoted to the Clery Act. "Anytime we see an institution hire someone specifically to address compliance, so it’s not just a one-time approach, it’s a step in a positive direction."
But there's plenty more to be done, and as Kiss explains, building a better model for sexual abuse prevention and reporting can’t all fall on the shoulders of one person, or one step in the process. When it comes to the safety of thousands of children, not to mention the thousands of college students, it takes an entire culture of people paying attention and holding each other accountable, and when that fails, giving victims the support they need and deserve.
The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, WPSU Learning & Media Design Team, University Police, Student Affairs, Centre County Women's Resource Center, Penn State faculty and other community leaders are all part of the new training. When they started building the program last fall, they looked at a number of organizations who have tackled child sex abuse, from Boy Scouts of America to the Archdiocese. But even Security on Campus, the organization whose sole existence is to promote campus safety, is continuously researching colleges and other large institutions to see who really handles sexual abuse prevention, reporting and victim’s services right, which is a pretty good indicator that there is no perfect model.
Sue Cromwell, director of Workplace Learning and Performance in the Office of Human Resources, sits at the helm of Penn State’s new training program.
"Things were very hectic in the fall, and we had to really look at what was needed to build this team," Cromwell says. "We wanted to focus on the movement from awareness to action, and what that means for employees."
Cromwell says the training sets a clear chain of command for employees who see, or think they might see, sexual abuse on campus. Policies for handling an employee who doesn't follow the law are in the works.
"We looked at probably ten programs and institutions," Cromwell says. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We’re looking at what works immediately with summer programs coming up, and then the long-term, sustainable training."
Starting Wednesday, summer camp leaders are getting trained to look for signs of abuse and get clear directions on how to report it. For example, counselors will be watching for campers who experience sudden changes in mood or seem withdrawn out of nowhere, though of course there can be many reasons behind extreme shifts in mood. If a counselor witnessed or was told about a sexual abuse violation, he or she would need to tell the program director. Any mandated reporter is required to not only inform the director, but university police, the university general counsel and the risk management department. The director is required to call Pennsylvania's ChildLine and provide a written statement to the Department of Public Welfare.
There's even a special training for the trainers, and online training to be used throughout the year. All employees will be encouraged to participate in the online program, which should be finished in time for the fall semester.
Mandated reporting can be extremely useful when it comes to defining responsibility and accountability. But it can backfire, too.
"There are some potential problems with mandating reporting," Rick Gipprich of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault told ThePostGame.com earlier this year. "A lot of people will report things they just find suspicious."
Police forces and courts may lack the staff and other resources to handle the volume of complaints, which can range in validity. Gipprich says cases can get buried, and when that happens, faith in the system gradually dwindles. Eventually, people may not want to bother for fear of being swept up in a bureaucratic vacuum. That’s why awareness and victim support can often be the most powerful tools to reshaping a culture.
University President Rodney Erickson said in a statement that employees, not just mandated reporters, should be required to complete it. Stricter background checks for employees are also in the works as part of recommendations made by Louis Freeh, the former FBI director and federal judge leading PSU’s independent Sandusky investigation. From the outside, it looks like the school is taking prevention seriously. After all, this is Penn State’s chance to reform itself. In a perfect world, the university that many associate with the worst sexual violence allegations might become the model campus for student and child safety.
Though the Sandusky allegations may not be making as many national headlines as it did last fall, its aftermath is a deep, dark hole for Penn State to climb out of.
"I hope what is communicated to the public is that Penn State does take this seriously," says Dr. Peggy Lorah, director of the Center for Women's Studies at the university. "This can be a huge education to those who think only peripherally about sexual abuse. Penn State can be a model as we move through this difficult time."
There was a small wave of sexual abuse awareness, seen in the whistleblowing that came from retired athletes, writers and even readers who sent hundreds of letters to the editor, pouring out their own stories of abuse when the Sandusky story unfolded. With Sandusky's trial looming, we're seeing what is hopefully more than just a small wave of action. With so many children set to arrive in Happy Valley this summer, it’s time for Penn State to set a new precedent.
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