Friday, November 11, 2011

Penn State: my school, my perspectives

I have been fielding questions and participating in countless discussions on the Penn State sex scandal that is currently commandeering the headlines.  As I have been sorting out my feelings on the issue, I have been paying close attention to the news, listening to my law school peers, and asking questions to my professors.  In my evaluation, I have approached the situation from several different angles, as follow:

I have been working at the PSU Dickinson School of Law’s Children’s Advocacy Clinic for nearly a year and have served many kids in the contexts of both guardian ad litem and attorney.  Looking at the scandal from this perspective, several facets of the issue disturb me.

1) A bogus email sent by one of our deans.  Disclaimer: this particular dean and I are not on exactly friendly terms.  I find him disrespectful, avoidant, and I feel that he single-handedly makes decisions that impact everyone but him while behind closed doors with no transparency.  Putting my personal vendetta aside, this particular dean wrote ALL of the law school faculty a letter stating that if their class members start talking about the scandal, then they need to re-focus the attention of the conversation on the fact that the law school has a Children’s Advocacy Clinic.  And…so?  I guess that he is saying that we should not be blamed for this because we have a handful of students who regularly work with abused kids, myself included.  He then made some OVERLY generous statements about the Clinic.  

 I don’t have a problem with the trumped up praise, really, but I do have a problem with this forced effort to not let students express their feelings in favor of discussing the Clinic exclusively.  This scandal has affected the students greatly.  At one moment we are wondering if our degree has lost all value, then realizing that ALL subsequent interviews will begin with the question “So what do you think about Joe Paterno?”, then wondering if we should be ashamed based on our PSU affiliation.  It has been nerve-wracking, to say the least, for us students and we have the right to discuss whatever aspects of this issue we find relevant and therapeutic without administrative interference.

2) A lack of focus on the victims.  With all of the media hype surrounding JoPa, you would thing that HE was the one molesting kids!  Not only has the perpetrator nearly disappeared from the media’s eye, but the victims are equally scarce.  I am disappointed with the coverage of this tragedy focusing on the sensational firing of prominent PSU employees, not on the REAL issue, which is harm to children.

3) Mandatory reporting requirements.  The current law in Pennsylvania setting forth the people who are statutorily required to report suspected child abuse is 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6311.  This statute contains a list of people who are considered “mandatory reporters” including doctors, nurses, school teachers, social services providers, and so forth.  Coach is not a part of that list.  Of course, the list is not exclusive, but arguably JoPa is not covered by the statute at all because his position as head football coach of a university does NOT put him into regular contact with children, as the statute requires.  As far as I know, JoPa was not coaching the Second Mile program where the victims were taken advantage of; therefore, he is arguably excluded from the statute.  This is perhaps why he is not being criminally prosecuted like his superiors (who would be managing both PSU and the Second Mile program) are. 

Additionally, the version of this statute at the time of the incidents in question included additional language which stated that a child must actually “come before” you (ie, if you were a teacher you would see the kid at school with bruises or if you were a therapist the child would disclose abuse to you during a session) OR you had to see the abuse being committed.  If the court applies the statute as it appeared at the time of many of the incidents, I believe that even JoPa’s superiors will be guiltless because they never saw any kids or any foul play.  BUT the graduate assistant (now assistant coach) McQueary who DID see abuse occur likely WOULD be in trouble.  Much to me and my peers’ confusion, McQueary has currently not been charged with anything and not been fired like anyone else.  Only today was he asked to not attend this week’s football game, and that only after a public outcry.  And rumor has it that McQueary’s dad and the perpetrator are very good friends…fishy.

I also have a heart for public defense.  I hope to be a public defender and I spent this past summer working near DC for a wonderful PD’s office.  From this side of the table, several different red flags are raised.

1) Joe Paterno.  I was relieved to hear that he hired a prominent defense attorney— he needs one.  He is a very old man (no offense, Joe) and when I think about him needing to handle these extremely sensitive issues, I think about my own grandfather and how he would feel about handling huge press conferences and having everyone glaring at him, thinking he is pure evil.  It makes me ill.  In Joe’s time, the world was not so educated about sexual abuse and I’m sure this is a difficult concept for him to grasp and understand how to approach.  I think he has been given far more blame than he deserves and I cannot agree that he honestly believed the reports he was receiving about his right-hand man.  I cannot imagine he took the allegations seriously and as such, he did his duty of reporting to his superiors and then left it there, thinking it was all a hoax anyway and not wanting to bury his close friend alive in what he likely believed were unfounded allegations.

So when Joe makes a statement to the press like “In hindsight, I wish I had done more,” I again think of my own grandfather.  I feel that Joe was just trying to do the right thing and make an honest, seemingly sensitive statement like my grandfather would.  He would not be familiar with the legal ramifications of that statement; he would only want to say what he thought was appropriate.  Unfortunately, the defense attorney in my head shouts, “SHUT UP! THEY WILL USE THAT AGAINST YOU!  THAT’S BASICALLY AN ADMISSION OF GUILT!”  But how would he know that?  I think people need to get off his case until more facts become available about what he actually knew and believed.

Additionally, casually calling a prominent coach of nearly 50 years who was literally the face of the university on the phone and just saying “Uhhh…well…you’re fired” is unacceptable.  Completely disrespectful of a great man and I am embarrassed that the Board would think that was okay.

2) Lastly, the perpetrator, Sandusky.  I’m gonna get rotten tomatoes thrown at me for this, but whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?  When before a grand jury, the prosecutor has an EXTREMELY low amount of evidentiary procedures to follow to prevent false information from coming into the court.  A grand jury is NOT a regular jury.  It is a pre-jury and the prosecution basically ALWAYS wins; thats just the way the system works.  It's just a step that always happens before a regular trial- he has NOT been found guilty!  So I feel that people who jump to the conclusion that Sandusky's guilt has already been proven are uninformed.  I am shocked at the media’s absence of the word “alleged.”  There has been NO genuine judicial fact finding that these events have occurred, so as of now these are only alleged events and alleged victims.  The way the media is treating this as won and done before trial has even begun, coupled with the way they are blasting this on all stations, means that Sandusky will NEVER have the opportunity to be tried before an unbiased jury, as is his Constitutional right.

1) First of all, I’m getting VERY tired of all of the emails from our (new) administration.  Enough is enough.  I respect them trying to keep us in the know, but the recurring theme dominating all of these emails is to guilt trip us into being as honorable as we can since now its apparently our sole responsibility to restore credibility to the university.  Great.  Thanks.  So how about a tuition cut for my stress and trouble?  Emails with words such as these…
Through your conduct every day, you can play a role in restoring the integrity, honor, and pride that have always characterized Penn State…always remember that your actions reflect on the entire Penn State community. Please set an example that will make us all proud.
                                    …don’t exactly inspire confidence.

2) Joe Paterno.  I have no real loyalties to PSU football, but I was sad to see this legendary man go.  I have conspiracy theories that pulling Joe into this was all a scheme to get him out of the way so the school can get into a more profitable conference, but I have really no evidence to substantiate that. 

3) Westboro Baptist Church.  You know times are tough with WBC decides to protest at your school.  These are the deplorable people who protest the funerals of our honorable military heroes with signs like “God Hates Fags” and do forth—absolutely despicable.  Well, apparently we made their godless list too.  I can’t wait to hear them screaming garbage like ‘God hates Penn State because it hires homosexuals and those boys got what they deserved as punishment from God for attending a PSU affiliated program.’  Outrageous.  I’m offended already.  Seriously.

To counter this, law student groups have already decided to organize a peaceful assembly to censor the WBC at Beaver Stadium tomorrow.  Good luck to my fellow students; may God grant you patience and calmness in order to prevent yourself from being sued for punching a WBC member.

4) The riots.  Yet another example of media sensationalism, these “riots” were blown way out of proportion.  The VAST majority of students peacefully gathered at the football stadium and at JoPa’s home, expressing support of him and literally holding hands and singing our school song.  Only a handful of (stupid) students were responsible for tipping a news truck, attempting to light a tree on fire, and so forth.  These kids were probably already drunk and just wanted an excuse to run around town.  Honestly, there’s not too much else to do in State College…  I’d like to think they intentionally chose to tip a news van because they want to protest the media’s skewed coverage of this issue, but I honestly can’t give them that much credit.  This handful of students truly embarrassed the rest of us and, unfortunately, have become the face of all of us across the country.

In sum, I hope that justice and right prevails.  I hope that the (alleged) victims receive all the help and support they need and deserve.  I hope the media figures out that there is SO much more going on in the world than this.  I hope that people will recognize how graciously most of us students are trying to handle this stressful situation.  And I sincerely hope that Tom Ridge is our new university president!