Teachable Moments from Penn State Case

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“We are Penn State. That’ll never change. … Understand this is really a call to duty.”

Last week, Penn State’s campus erupted. The Board of Trustees announced that beloved football Head Coach and collegiate athletics legend Joe Paterno was fired, effective immediately. Penn State football is its own culture, boarding on being a religion to students, alumni and Division I football fans.

Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier were fired as a result of their failure to act after learning of numerous sexual assaults perpetrated by former Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky is currently being investigated by the Pennsylvania Attorney General for 40 counts related to child sexual abuse. Other coaching staff and campus administrators are also being charged as a result of being passive bystanders, choosing to not take any action that would protect or support the victims. University Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz are being charged with perjury and failure to report child sexual abuse allegations to the proper authorities.

Paterno is quoted as saying, “At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can. This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

As the complexity of the situation at Penn State unfolds, Paterno’s comment of “I wish I had done more” resonates with what advocates and prevention educators know to be true; there is more work to be done. Some of that work can be accomplished through these mechanisms:

1) Empower campus administrators, faculty, and staff to speak up and step in when they witness sexual harassment, sexual assault, or intimate partner violence.

  • It is not enough that college campuses have a formal policy regarding reporting sexual harassment, sexual assault, or intimate partner violence. The crucial step is putting policy into practice. All administrators, faculty, and staff must be trained on how to report, what the formal mechanisms around reporting are, and the ramifications of failing to report.
  • Administrators must place emphasis on and prioritize the well-being of the survivor, and encourage all employees of the campus to do the same.

2) Promote a campus culture that supports prevention efforts, not just intervention efforts.

  • There are a number of campus programs that are geared towards promoting gender equity and safety for their entire campus population. These programs bring both administrators and students to the table, encouraging partnership and cooperation to create a community response to violence on campus. Some of the ones that have recently been discussed at CALCASA are:
  • Alert students to policies and procedures that exist on campus so that they know their role in preventing violence and intervening if or when they witness it. Let them know who they can speak with confidentially and who they can report to, where they can find these individuals, and what process they should follow to insure that their voices are heard.

3) Dismantle our connection between sports, masculinity, and power on campus.

  • We can start this process by acknowledging that the real tragedy is not about football. It is not about who holds social and financial power on campus. It is not about asserting that sports culture and the dominant story of heterosexual masculinity that often times comes with sports culture reins supreme on a prominent state school campus. This is about a failure to uphold a legal and ethical obligation to protect a survivor of sexual assault.

4) Reach out

  • There are national, state, and local partners who are trained to provide education and guidance around this topic. CALCASA staff members are able to provide referrals for campus programs, prevention education, intervention and advocacy services, and media response. Please contact:
  • Denice Labertew: denice@calcasa.org (Advocacy and Campus)
  • Leona Smith Di Faustino: leona.smith@calcasa.org (Prevention and Advocacy)
  • Alexis Marbach: alexis.marbach@calcasa.org (Prevention and Policy)
  • Jessica Renee Napier: jessica@calcasa.org (Media)

Blog post co-written by Leona Smith Di Faustino and Alexis Marbach.

Alexis Marbach

Alexis Marbach joined CALCASA in July 2011 and is currently the Training and Technical Assistance Coordinator in the Prevention Department and a Public Policy Advocate. She has been working in the field of sexual violence prevention since 2002 as a prevention educator, group facilitator, and researcher. Alexis is committed to developing and promoting comprehensive, culturally competent primary prevention initiatives to reduce sexual violence.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • David Eads December 20, 2011, 7:55 AM

    Jane Leavy’s “open letter to Mike McQueary” (the assistant coach who waited far too long to testify to the authorities about what he saw) is a lyrical and moving demonstration of what can be learned from the Penn State rape tragedy:

    “Trauma fractures comprehension as a pebble shatters a windshield. The wound at the site of impact spreads across the field of vision, obscuring reality and challenging belief. I know from my own experience that you can know exactly what happened and wonder: Did that really happen? Did I see what I think I saw?”

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