Thursday, November 24, 2011

Penn State child sex abuse scandal leads colleges to emphasize their own reporting policies

By Elizabeth Gibson, The Patriot-News

It’s tough to imagine a single college leader who isn’t watching the Penn State child sex abuse scandal and wondering.
Wondering if something like that ever happened on their own campus. Or could.
Presidents of midstate colleges said this week that allegations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky are compelling them to emphasize, and in some cases re-examine, their schools’ policies on reporting sexual abuse.
“In light of recent events at Penn State, we all need to be clear about what we should do if we have suspicions of sexual abuse or if we witness or have direct knowledge about an incident of sexual abuse at LVC,” Lebanon Valley College President Stephen MacDonald said Monday in a letter to the campus community.
He described steps to take, including calling police. He listed local police department phone numbers.
MacDonald went so far as to state, “You should take action to safeguard the victim if circumstances allow.”
Shippensburg University President Bill Ruud’s message was similar.

“The recent revelations and media accounts involving allegations of sexual abuse/sexual assault of minor children at Penn State make it incumbent upon me to reinforce to the university community our obligation to make sure children who visit our campus are protected,” Ruud said.
Elizabethtown College President Carl J. Strikwerda also wrote to students and staff on the topic.
“As I watched the events unfold ... in State College, those incidents provide us with an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the moral obligation of protecting those who are unable to protect themselves,” Strikwerda wrote.
Elizabethtown College spokeswoman Elizabeth A. Braungard said the school had been reviewing its crime-reporting process before Sandusky’s Nov. 4 indictment on 40 counts of sex crimes against boys.
“We were exploring opportunities to simplify and streamline the reporting process and to ensure the review process was a formal one. Reports are sent directly to campus security, are logged and then passed to the appropriate department or external authorities,” Braungard said.
“The PSU story did prompt the college to communicate about the online reporting option earlier than previously scheduled,” she said.
So far, though, no one at Elizabethtown has used the online option. Its chief feature is that it can be filed anonymously. Strikwerda said the form, posted on the school’s website, gives people a chance to be sure an incident gets attention.
“We realize that there are also incidents which may appear more ambiguous or have already happened, or which individuals believe may need more investigation,” Strikwerda said.
Ruud said Shippensburg will revisit every standard, policy and program to ensure they meet legal guidelines and university standards on sexual harassment, abuse — sexual and otherwise — unwanted sexual activity and illegal activity, including child pornography.
Other area colleges, including Penn State Harrisburg, are studying reporting policies.
“Anytime any event happens, it always causes us to review things, because it makes us better,” said Donald Holtzman, university senior director of student services and special projects.
Holtzman said the Lower Swatara Township campus will be guided in policy changes by University Park.
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology spokesman Steven Infanti said the school goes over policies before starting any camp. Harrisburg U holds only day camps. All are on site and led by faculty. Also, rules on staff and students are studied each year for potential changes.
And at Messiah College in Grantham: “Our review actually began prior to the news from Penn State and is attributed to federally imposed changes within the (federal) Higher Education Act,” spokeswoman Beth Lorow said.
“Of course, as with any public crisis at an institution of higher education, our crisis management team is informally observing the affected university and gleaning information that could potentially shape Messiah’s response in a similar situation,” she said. “In higher education I think it’s fair to say that we all have a lot to learn from one another — in good times and bad.”
Dickinson College in Carlisle has scheduled a panel talk at 7 p.m. Dec. 1 on moral and legal obligations to stop wrongful conduct and to report it to public authorities. A panelist will be Frank Fina, chief of public corruption in the state attorney general’s office, which investigated Sandusky.
Local college leaders aren’t just talking about rules and legal implications.
Lebanon Valley’s MacDonald also addressed the needs of sexual abuse victims.
“Victims of sexual abuse are urged to seek appropriate help. A list of confidential support options and other resources for victims can be found at [the college web site],” MacDonald said.
Efforts to reach officials at Harrisburg Area Community College late Wednesday were unsuccessful.

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