In 2011, Jerry Sandusky, football coach at Penn State, was charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse between 1994 and 2009. The following year he was found guilty of 45 counts and is serving a prison sentence of 30 to 60 years. Penn State paid more than $93 million last year to a total of 33 people who said they were sexually assaulted by Sandusky. The university also paid close to $20 million toward legal fees and other costs related to the internal investigation launched in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal.
In addition to the public’s shock to learn of Sandusky’s horrific acts, equally shocking was that people had been aware of the allegations and they chose not to do anything about them. In the case of Penn State, then-head coach Joe Paterno and several high-ranking members of the university’s leadership team, according to credible accounts, did nearly everything in their power to downplay, distract, and cover-up Sandusky’s actions – all in an effort to protect a powerful football program.
It’s six years later since Sandusky’s actions were made public and the lessons learned from the Penn State scandal have yet to fully reverberate throughout universities across the country in terms of having robust crisis management practices in place when such a scandal occurs. In fact, these incidents continue to arise at institutions of all types – from Baylor, Yale, North Carolina, and Rutgers to Ole Miss and Syracuse University.
The value of crisis management for educational institutions
It’s critical that an institution's first steps be the right ones when a scandal is brought to light, yet often in many of these crisis situations the first step is a misstep – ranging from reluctant action to, in the worst of cases, outright cover-up. University and athletic leadership realize the potential financial and reputational fallout such scandals can wreak and their first instinct is to protect their sports teams and athletes. However, this only serves to muddy the intent to find the truth and ultimately works against safeguarding the safety of the campus community. In order to ensure that the right steps are taken, universities need to have established protocols to follow that are in place before the crisis arises. These protocols should not involve people who have a direct vested interest in the outcome (coaches, and perhaps athletic directors), must be fair to the victim and the accused, and must be consistent with applicable law and policy. The process must include independence and accountability, in addition to being consistent in its application.
Also, if the allegation is supported by sufficient evidence, the alleged offender should be relieved immediately of his/her position and referred to the appropriate medical evaluation and intervention.
In the case of Penn State, after the scandal, they also implemented new employee hiring practices. The school, for example, requires final job applicants and third-party employees to undergo criminal background checks before approval of work at the university. Under the policy, current employees in “sensitive/critical” positions also must complete the background check and all employees are required to disclose criminal arrests and convictions within 72 hours of their occurrence. The background criminal check covers academic and nonacademic positions, unpaid positions, and third-party employees working on the university’s behalf.
In addition, Penn State’s policy was updated to stipulate that all employees must report suspected child abuse to state officials. This was done as part of its new comprehensive program of due diligence and proactive safety measures to ensure a safer environment for all of Penn State’s employees, students and visitors.
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