It is difficult to open up any newspaper, news website, or blog related to sexual violence that does not bombard you with Joe Paterno headlines and allegations against Sandusky. Indeed, Penn State has flooded America and left a rumbling of emotion and opinion. I have followed this case closely in the media for the mere purpose of listening to what the media is telling the public. Certainly, this is all anyone knows — including the Penn State community — what the media is saying is what the public knows. The truth about what really happened is in the hands of our court system and we must place faith in that. It is not our role to determine guilt or innocence. With than being said, I am amidst the millions that share outrage and sadness in the aftermath of the disclosure of this tragedy. I believe we can all walk away with valuable lessons from the Penn State “scandal.” I want to touch upon these lessons briefly.
First, I believe Dr. Yvonna K. Fulbright, a writer for the Huffington Post said it best when she wrote,
“If you’re not a Penn Stater, don’t judge. Sadly, you need to do no more than look in your own backyard to find that the same wrongs are being committed against other children. According to the National Resource Council, at least 20-24% of the U.S. population has been sexually abused. It’s an issue affecting every community, and more needs to be done about it everywhere.”
It is extremely easy for us to all walk around with a bad taste in our mouth regarding Penn State. Joe Paterno, as many articles have noted, is Penn State. He is the king (These are not my words, they are those of journalists reporting on the recent events). Indeed, a handful of Penn State faculty, who were prominent in the community and well trusted, let their community down. But the Penn State community is not at fault. I cannot tell you how to think or feel toward the football coaches and the President of the University, but I can strongly recommend that you do not let those opinions mesh with your beliefs about the Penn State community. After Penn State lost in their last home game on Saturday against Nebraska, my newsfeed on Facebook was inundated with statuses saying they deserved to lose, they were an awful team, and other rude assumptions about the football team. I’d like to believe that these friends were just participating in normative sports banter as they would about the Greenbay Packers or the New York Yankees, but I m afraid that is not the case. Rather, they were letting a handful of people’s actions blur their opinion about an entire sports team. Let us not forget that when these alleged abuses were occurring, the current football players were not on the team.
Second, the tragedy at Penn State emphasizes the reality that most perpetrators of sexual abuse are people that we know and trust. Let us use this story as an opportunity to further dismantle the belief that perpetrators are the ‘strangers in the bushes’ so to speak. Further, and this gets me into my third lesson, we must all fulfill our duty to protect members of our community. The entire under-girding of the outcry about Penn State is that no one reported anything to the police despite witnessing abuse taking place. Of course, we all do not know how we would act in those situations, but it is important to think about it for ourselves now in case we are, unfortunately, faced as a witness in the future. Up until this week, the media lost sight of the victim side of this story, which was a tragedy in and of itself. But we must not forget the victims deserve help, protection, and justice. My heart goes out to the victims, who are now adults and may have never disclosed to anyone, who are likely being re-traumatized by the news stories and public opinions.
Although the victims in this story were young children, the lessons must trickle into campus safety regarding sexual violence. Kayla Webley reminds us that,
“…disclosing campus crime has often been a process fraught with confusion, loopholes, inaction, inconsistencies and, in some cases, negligence and cover-ups.”
The lesson here is two-fold. First, campus authorities must take reports of sexual violence seriously. They must respect the alleged victim’s report and follow through with an open investigation. Favoring a university’s reputation over any individual’s life is immoral and results in a loss of trust and respect within the university community. The response from campus authorities inevitably determines if alleged victims will come forward. Second, students on campus must become allies against sexual violence and inform their peers that such behaviors will not be tolerated. Peer pressure is a very strong tool. We lay a lot of trust and responsibility in the authorities and faculty — as we should — but we almost must begin to place that trust and responsibility in the student body. If you witness a person being sexually harassed or assaulted, stand up for the victim. Empower him or her to get help. Protect your peers and ensure your own safety.
Overall, the media has made this story about a legendary football network. The media has referred to Joe Paterno as the king. The media has overwhelmed society with implanted emotions. Please take everything you read with a grain of salt, but do not lose sight of the lessons that can be taken away from the general story. Sexual abuse is very real and it does not discriminate across gender, age, race, socioeconomic status, or abilities. Child sexual abuse is a greater tragedy in this world than anything Penn State will ever know.