Penn State University: Lessons Learned

Today I’d like to introduce Dawn Sticklen, from Since You Asked…. Dawn lives in Joplin, Missouri and she writes about family life both in her local community and around the globe. Her blog offers ideas for contributing to the overall quality of life and wellness of your community.

Dawn and I have been talking about a major issue that, sadly enough, affects each and every one of our communities: sexual abuse. Recently, I wrote about the Code of Silence that protects perpetrators in child sexual abuse cases, and Dawn wrote an amazing response to that issue in the comments that followed. I asked her to expound on her response in a guest post, and what she wrote is both hair-raising and instructive. For a look at how the Code of Silence has impacted her community, please read Dawn’s excellent story below.

Today, as I ponder the sanctions handed down to Penn State University by the NCAA, I can’t help but wonder, “What can we learn from all of this?  Will we learn from this?”  Like El and most of you, I am outraged not just by Jerry Sandusky’s behavior, but also by the behavior of those surrounding him who felt that the reputation of the university and its football program was more important than the safety of the children with whom Sandusky worked – and then abused.

However, what makes me most angry about the Penn State situation is the fact that the “code of silence” is frequently enacted in our own communities.  Too often we ignore complaints about inappropriate behavior by adults in leadership positions for fear of bringing negative attention to an institution that we hold high esteem for.  We speak of the accusations in hushed tones; hoping the incident was a “one time” event or convincing ourselves it’s none of our business because our child was not the victim.  Unfortunately, what we don’t realize is that when we react swiftly in the face of accusations of abuse and/or inappropriate behavior it is an indictment against the individual.  When we are slow to react, though, it becomes an indictment against the institution.

Take, for example, the Catholic Church, of which I am a member.  Imagine how much more respect and honor the church would have received over the years if its leaders, upon learning of the very first abuse case, had simply done the right thing and adopted the policy of removing perpetrators from any contact with children.  Instead they chose to move the abusers to other churches in an effort to cover up the crimes committed and in the hopes that the perpetrator would miraculously cease his abusive acts.

After years of this pattern, the church –and rightly so – now finds itself responsible for jeopardizing the safety of hundreds of children.  Unfortunately, Joe Paterno is guilty of this same crime by hiding what he knew about Sandusky’s behavior with the young boys he came into contact with on a regular basis on Penn State’s property.

Penn State’s fans are outraged by the NCAA’s and the media’s harsh criticism toward their beloved coach.  I find this ironic because it is this same revered coach who single-handedly brought dishonor to the university by his decision to put the sanctity of the university and its football program above that of the many children who were Sandusky’s victims.  Unfortunately, this misguided anger occurs frequently in our own communities, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Locally I witnessed the firing of a high school football coach amid accusations of inappropriate text messages he sent to a student.  I was appalled to hear parents defend the coach by questioning the student’s reputation.  Some individuals even went so far as to make threatening phone calls to the victim’s home out of their anger for her drawing negative attention to their beloved coach, football program, and school.  It was the fear of this community backlash that kept past victims from coming forward to reveal the pattern of abuse exhibited by this coach.

How many other children have been victims of abuse in other communities but have been reluctant to come forward for fear of their own safety and reputation because too many people are loath to admit that someone they respect is capable of crimes against our most vulnerable citizens?  This is the “code of silence” that exists in all our communities, and it is time to break this code.  It is time for us to stand up to the bullies who desire athletic dominance over the safety of our children.  Are we really the kind of society that values the reputation and sanctity of an institution above that of a child?

NCAA president, Mark Emmert, explained the severity of the sanctions against Penn State as a wake-up call to all universities about the dangers of “hero worship” with regard to their athletic programs (specifically football).  In our own communities we, too, must endeavor to achieve a winning tradition while refusing to adopt a win-at-all-costs attitude.  We cannot allow our admiration for an individual to cloud our judgment of his behavior toward the children entrusted to his care.  We cannot continue to allow others to threaten a victim or discredit his or her claims of abuse in an effort to protect the institution with which the perpetrator is associated.

We must take our cue from the NCAA and realize that as adults and members of a community we are all accountable for the safety of our children and must strive to create a culture of honesty and integrity where children need not be afraid to report any inappropriate behavior of the adults who work with them.

These are the lessons we can – indeed, must – learn from the Penn State scandal.

Readers: how do you feel about the Code of Silence? What can we do about it?

21 Comments on “Penn State University: Lessons Learned

  1. Thank you for allowing Dawn to post this wonderful article. One of the things that bothers me most about the code of silence is the way it often coerces a victims perception and they then believe what happened to them must be ok, normal, acceptable–as if all children must have secrets and feelings of shame.

    • Yes yes yes!! This is what kept me quiet as a kid!! My parents were always saying, whenever they read or heard about a case of incest or sexual assault, that the psychologist must have planted the idea in the head of the child. :Sigh:

      And so a new normal is created!


      • El, you are exactly right. I understand it is hard for us to imagine that an adult who we know and/or respect is capable of harming children in such a manner, but it happens. Of course, it is a lot easier for those of us who have experienced abuse as children to understand the reality and ramifications of the situation than it is for those who have not. This is why I feel compelled to speak out LOUDLY about the situation, and I’m sure it’s the same for you. The good news? My psychiatrist friend tells me abuse is on the decline over the past 10 years as a result of increased awareness and empowerment of children by their parents. This encourages me that we can continue to make things better. 🙂

  2. Hi Dawn!

    Beautiful, well-written article. And sadly, this:

    “Are we really the kind of society that values the reputation and sanctity of an institution above that of a child?”

    Because we have proven time and again that we value institutions over people. But also there is a self-preservation piece here. The janitors who WITNESSED the events and then chose not to report, well, sadly that happens all the time. Because those folks need those jobs, those benefits.

    I see this as as institutional bullying, and we all know how difficult it is to get kids to take a stand and be that lone voice. The repercussions can be huge. Well, why should we expect adults to be more brave. Most adults are just those same bystanders all grown up and in bigger pants.

    It’s times like this I am most ashamed of us.

  3. Hi, Renee! You are so right, the repercussions (real or perceived) can be overwhelming for those who are faced with the decision of whether or not to blow the whistle when they witness questionable actions by others. I hope we will somehow get better at remembering who the victim is in instances of abuse.

    • Right on Renee–awesome point. And it’s interesting. I just read this article in the WSJ yesterday about how the way the teachers’ unions in NYC require a detailed and expensive investigation into all alleged incidents of sexual abuse makes it even harder to get perpetrators away from children. I would not want anyone to be accused of something they didn’t do BUT that happens less than so many apologists seems to think. That was one of the ways my family kept me silent. They always told me that too many innocent adults are attacked and accused of hurting kids.

      Great story. And they’re still sticking to it.

      In the case of PSU, and in so many communities, there are a million reasons not to make waves. Forgotten in that fear is the need to protect both victims and potential marks.

  4. I had to wait to read this, the entire issue makes my stomach clench and fury crawl up my spine. The response of fans makes me want to put my sh*t kickers and stomp people. I simply had to wait, read twice, breath deeply and calm down.

    First, Dawn you did a really wonderful job with this. Compassionate and at the same time pragmatic in looking at the problem and asking the right questions. Thank you for not pulling at our heartstrings but instead compelling us to use our intellect.

    To answer, this is not the community or nation I want. I want one in which we put our children first. First above institutions. First above the reputations of coaches, teachers or anyone else. We are all accountable and must be in the future responsible for keeping our children safe. We cannot turn away, we cannot be absent from the lives of children, not as parents, neighbors or other adults. We have to start to get more engaged, more involved.

    Thank you again for adding to the discussion. Thank you also El.

    • Thanks, Val, for your compassion and conviction. This is exactly what I’m trying to get us all to understand. What has been done has been done – unfortunately we cannot undo the actions of those involved in the scandal. What we can do – what we should do – is learn from this and grow as adults and as a society. I hope we are able to do so.

  5. Hi folks. Sorry for being a little late with my comments. But actually, it’s opened my eyes to something. It’s troubling to me this morning that I don’t see more comments in reaction to this post. It’s probably one of the most important topics that El can address on her blog – and I applaud her for asking Dawn to tackle this controversial issue. However, why aren’t there more comments? El’s posts average upwards of 30 or so comments per post, so why is this one different? If anything, I would think this post would break all previous records!

    Dawn, you did a wonderful job on this story. You pointed out things that people only whisper about. You made us feel uncomfortable and somewhat ashamed – and that’s a good thing. So i’m still scratching my head over here … where are all the commenters? The thing is, I’ve addressed these same issues on my blog, and each time I do, I consistently see a dip in comments. These are the posts that we should be discussing the most. So where is everyone?

    • It opened my eyes up too, my friend. So much of the world reads an article like this and decides that we must just be bitter or have an agenda. Maybe I do have an agenda. But it is a pure one, and it’s all about the kids. As the admin of an “inspirational page” on Facebook, I’m seeing that folks always wanna read Kumbaya . . . how nice for them, you know? For real, I like to help people feel good. I don’t want to make people feel good, however, if it means being afraid or unwilling to face the truth.

      So . . . it got me too, that the comments on this are, well, kind of missing. But it gave me a great idea for a guest blog post, Stephanie!

      • Yay! I’m so glad my comment prompted an idea – wanna guest blog on that? Understand if you want to keep that for yourself, tho. And to think I actually hesitated about posting my frustration for fear of pissing people off. Thank God I went with my gut!

        • Stephanie, I am so glad you brought this up. I, too, wondered what I had done wrong to keep people away from commenting (and I was worried El would be sorry she asked me to write it!) However, I think it is only fair that I share what happened in my personal life while I was working on this piece. A friend of ours came to our house to work on one of our computers while I was writing this. He asked what I was working on and I told him. It created a lengthy dialogue that provided me with the following quotes: “Unfortunately, what we don’t realize is that when we react swiftly in the face of accusations of abuse and/or inappropriate behavior it is an indictment against the individual. When we are slow to react, though, it becomes an indictment against the institution,” and, “Are we really the kind of society that values the reputation and sanctity of an institution above that of a child?” Those are his comments and I thought they were incredibly insightful. Our conversation ended up spanning three days via e-mails and texts, and ended with his thanking me for “waking him up” on the topic and encouraging him to be brave enough to take a stand on the subject. Our hope is that by speaking up and chastising those who encourage and promote the code of silence we will, eventually, eliminate it from our culture. I don’t think it’s impossible – but it will require us to be strong. Thanks again for the encouragement 🙂

  6. Dawn, you did a great job with this piece, so don’t think for a minute that people aren’t commenting because of quality. I don’t know what gives, but perhaps El has a hunch as to what’s going on here. Your friend’s comments made a powerful impact on the story. And about that coach being fired … I am appauled and anged at the behavior of those parents! If that isn’t putting football before the safety if a child then I don’t know what is! (wanna expand on that local story in a guest post? This is the type of issue I want to raise awareness of for parents and teens alike.)

    • I agree with Stephanie, Dawn–you wrote a great post above. I do have a hunch, and am going to put it together in a guest post for you Stephanie. It has to do with anger and outrage and society’s discomfort with it . . . I have a lot to say on the subject but I have a migraine so I can’t say much right now. You two are both awesome!! Please forgive my brevity (gah!!!) xoxo.

  7. El, I think I read your comment too fast (or else I’m finally losing it) … If you are suggesting a guest post about tackling the lack-of-comments issue, then yes, yes, yes!!

  8. Thank you both :-). Stephanie, I’m very much interested in putting a piece together for you. I don’t want to dwell on the parties involved, but maybe something more along the lines of empowering our children? I don’t know. Let me know what you think and I’ll start mulling it over in my head, too. Thank you for the offer – I’m extremely honored.