Penn State Sex Scandal Can Change How Institutions Manage Risk
By Joel Berg
The grand jury investigating allegations of child sex abuse at Penn State University heard several versions of what allegedly happened in a locker-room shower between Jerry Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy, known as Victim 2.
According to the grand jury report, university officials testified to different understandings of the scene, with descriptions ranging from "horseplay" to sexual relations.
Prosecutors allege it was sexual assault, and Sandusky, a former Penn State football coach, faces multiple counts of child sex abuse involving 10 boys. He has maintained his innocence.
Since charges were filed in early November, Penn State's president, Graham Spanier, and its legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, have been fired. And the university is likely to face civil suits seeking millions of dollars in damages.
Risk managers hoping to draw lessons from the scandal may want to focus on one fact that does not appear to be in contention: Sandusky was often alone with children.
Monitoring, or even barring, one-on-one encounters between children and unrelated adults is one of the first steps in preventing child sex abuse, said Jolie Logan, CEO of Darkness to Light, a nonprofit in Charleston, S.C., that runs sex-abuse prevention programs around the country.
Not every adult has bad intentions, Logan said. But those who do will seek out private time with children, and they might find it during summer camps held at college and university campuses, Logan said.
"We certainly don't want to create a culture of paranoia and assuming the worst of everyone," Logan said. "But we need to be aware of how this happens, and that's where those warning signs come in?Someone who wants to be alone with children, especially if the culture doesn't allow it, that's a problem."
Situations involving water, such as bathrooms and showers, are especially fraught, said Ann Franke, president of Wise Results LLC, a consulting firm in Washington specializing in higher education risk and policy issues.
"Water means partial nudity, and it also means some element of privacy, so those are settings where molesters can operate, unfortunately," she said.
In situations where adults and children must work one-on-one, such as music lessons, institutions can ensure private time is subject to unplanned interruption, Franke said.
As a further precaution, colleges and universities that rent facilities to summer youth programs can require lessees to buy insurance that includes coverage for molestation, Franke said. Sandusky brought young people to Penn State as part of his work with The Second Mile, a nonprofit he founded in 1977 to help at-risk children.
At the very least, Franke said, higher education officials need to be more open about the potential for child sex abuse. "I've had the experience of standing up in front of college audiences and, when I start talking about molestation and the risk it poses at institutions, I have just felt the audience aghast and sort of clam up," she said.
One way to broach the topic is during an enterprise risk management process designed to identify unforeseen and unusual risks, said Ken Krenicky, a principal of Core Risks Ltd., a compliance and risk solutions company in Wayne, Pa. that advises universities, life-science companies and medical-device companies. The process should include people from all departments within a college or university.
"The problem with this type of incident is people believe that they would do the right thing if it were them," Krenicky said. "And I think the good that may come from this is for people to realize that it can happen at the best places. So don't be so smug as to think it can't happen at your place."
Colleges and universities also might want to improve procedures for reporting suspected wrongdoing, Krenicky added. "The majority of institutions, the vast majority, want to do the right thing. You have to give them the tools. You can't assume, obviously, that everybody will always do the right thing."
The right thing is not necessarily the easy thing, said Michael B. Goldstein, practice leader for higher education at Dow Lohnes, a law firm in Washington. Procedures have to account for the possibility that a suspect is innocent.
"Charging somebody with a sexual offense on a minor is extraordinarily serious," Goldstein said. "People have to be careful about doing that."
Some of Penn State's troubles stem from the apparent mishandling of the initial report of allegedly inappropriate contact between Sandusky and Victim 2 in 2002. A graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, told Paterno, who told two other college officials. Those two officials did not contact police, despite an obligation to do so under Pennsylvania law, according to the grand jury report, and they face charges as a result. Neither Paterno nor McQueary were under the same obligation.
In the future, they may be. In the wake of the scandal, lawmakers and regulators around the country are likely to lengthen the list of so-called "reporters," people who are legally bound to report suspected child abuse, said Robert B. Smith, an attorney who heads the higher education industry team at the law firm of LeClairRyan.
Penalties for failing to report -- and to follow up on those reports -- also may be strengthened, Smith said.
But nothing is likely to eliminate abuse entirely, Smith added. But institutions should act to limit the potential.
"I would have hoped that the clergy abuse cases would have brought the issue to the fore," he said. "But I guess it was just too easy for lots of us to say, 'Well, that's them. They're strange people who have taken vows of celibacy. They're not married with three kids.' Well, they are married with three kids, the people who do this, and so it isn't unique to the clergy. It's not unique to scout leaders. It's not unique to basketball coaches. But people with that proclivity tend to go where the victims are."
JOEL BERG is a freelance journalist and college professor.
December 1, 2011
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