Climate of Indifference IS Part of Why the Sandusky Sexual Assaults Occurred

This morning, Joe Paterno’s family released their report contradicting much of Judge Louis Freeh’s report on why the child sexual assaults at Penn State University occurred.  In this report, they state that there were essentially no issues within the football program (and, by implication, the Athletics program in general) that would have created what I call the “Climate of Indifference” at The Penn State University towards sexual assault, domestic and acquaintance violence, and stalking.

Whether or not Joe Paterno should be held accountable for his actions or in-actions in the Jerry Sandusky case, I do believe that those within the Athletics department and the Penn State administration contributed to a climate where athletes, staff, and faculty within the Athletics program either felt immune from possible repercussions of their actions OR felt fearful in reporting what they saw or heard.

Since 1994, I along with Ni-Ta-Nee NOW (the local NOW chapter in Centre County, PA), Pennsylvania NOW, and/or National NOW have been calling on the University to take all forms of assault against women—and subsequently children—seriously, to create a zero-tolerance policy towards all forms of violence against others, to end the Climate of Indifference within Athletics, and treat all allegations of assault under the same rules and policies that the rest of the University community is held up to.

In November 2011, right after the Sandusky case came to light, The Nation’s Dave Zirin referenced a 2006 comment I had made in an article he titled “The World Joe Paterno Made.”  He first set up the background for my statement:

In 2003, less than one year after Paterno was told that Sandusky was raping children, he allowed a player accused of rape to suit up and play in a bowl game. Widespread criticism of this move was ignored. In 2006, Penn State’s Orange Bowl opponent Florida State, sent home linebacker A.J. Nicholson, after accusations of sexual assault. Paterno’s response, in light of recent events, is jaw-dropping. He said, “There’s so many people gravitating to these kids. He may not have even known what he was getting into, Nicholson. They knock on the door; somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do? Geez. I hope—thank God they don’t knock on my door because I’d refer them to a couple of other rooms.”

Zirin then stated,

Joanne Tosti-Vasey, president of Pennsylvania’s National Organization for Women in Pennsylvania, was not amused. With chilling unintentional prescience, Tosti-Vasey responded, “Allegations of sexual assault should never be taken lightly. Making light of sexual assault sends the message that rape is something to be expected and accepted.”

Upon seeing a Tweet by Mr. Zirin calling my statement “prescient,” I contacted him and told him that NOW continued to have concerns over the Climate of Indifference within the Athletics program.  He printed my comments in their entirety in a subsequent blog.  This included the following:

I truly wish that I hadn’t been “prescient” as you stated in your article when you referred to my call in 2006 for Penn State to address campus violence. Due to these newest allegations of child sexual assault and the possible cover-up that may have occurred, I have once again referred to this Climate of Indifference and minimization of abuse towards others, particularly in the Athletics Department….

For almost 20 years, we have challenged Penn State’s dismissive attitude toward violence against women, particularly within the Athletics department. It is time to stop this insular focus.  It is time to make sure that NO form of campus violence – sexual assault, relationship violence, or stalking – is ever again tolerated.   Against any child.  Against any adult.  Against any member of the PSU community or a visitor to any of our campuses (yes, I am alum).

After NOW and many others called for an independent investigation into the Sandusky scandal, Judge Louis Freeh was appointed as the Special Investigative Counsel by the Penn State Board of Trustees.  On July 12, 2012, Judge Freeh released his scathing indictment against the upper administration, the Athletics department, and the Board of Trustees for covering up, failing to protect potential and actual victims of sexual violence, and failing to provide appropriate board oversight.

Regardless of whether or not Joe Paterno was culpable in this alleged cover-up (which I am not commenting on one way or the other), I continue to believe that the Climate of Indifference within the Athletic program contributed to this scandal and needs to be addressed.  It needs to be addressed in a comprehensive manner so that no child or adult is ever stalked, physically assaulted, or sexually assaulted again.

Once this report came out, National NOW posted a statement by me as a member of the National NOW Board of Directors regarding the Freeh report.   In light of today’s report by the Paterno family relating to the scandal and this Climate of Indifference at Penn State, I’d like to reiterate the following:

[The] University must step up to the plate and fully implement these recommendations. But they need to go even further to focus on policies to prevent all forms of campus violence — sexual assault, domestic/relationship violence, and stalking — of both children AND adults….

One way Judge Freeh’s recommendations could have additional teeth is if the University also complies with the new Title IX regulations that were created by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). These new Title IX regulations were announced on April 4, 2011, by Vice President Biden, and according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, “The Department of Education issued a policy guidance which made clear that Title IX’s protections against sexual harassment and sexual violence apply to all students, including athletes. It addresses athletics departments in particular when it requires schools to use the same procedures that apply to all students to resolve sexual violence complaints involving student athletes.”

In June of [2012], the Department of Education released its Title IX Enforcement Highlights report. According to this report, OCR provides detailed policy guidance documents to schools and colleges around the country with recommendations on what each school should do to meet these Title IX legal requirements. Since 2009, OCR has issued nine such documents. Three of these documents relate to Title IX, on topics such as “bullying, sexual harassment, sexual violence, and equity in athletics programs.”

Penn State University and every other college, university, and school — both public and private — need to ensure that no child assaults and no assaults or harassment of faculty, staff, students or visitors occur on their campuses. Judge Freeh’s recommendations, particularly those focusing on the campus climate and compliance to school-wide polices within the Athletics department be expanded to all forms of campus violence; additionally, Title IX polices need to be fully reviewed and implemented as well.

And as Lisa Bennett, NOW’s Communications Director said in a blog she wrote on July 12, 2012,

[I]f we can direct the conversation to the role that sexism and patriarchy played in these cover ups, perhaps we can change these systems in a real and profound way. We must not let the reverence our society has for such institutions stand in the way of an honest dialogue — in fact, it is that very reverence that smothers the potential for justice and healing.

Let’s get started now.