Penn State and the Failure to Speak Up

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By Mishy Lesser, Upstander Director

Penn State is a tragic case study of a system that is stuck. Assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual predation of young boys, his abuse of power, and the cover up and collusion by Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, President Graham Spanier, and graduate student Mike McQueary, are just the most recent incarnations of failed leadership.  It is now known that both Paterno and Spanier were told by McQueary that Sandusky was sexually abusing boys, but they were part of a college culture that encouraged loyalty to friends, more than courage to act to stop abuse and prevent further victimization.  Spanier led Penn State, starting in 1995, and Paterno’s tenure lasted 46 years.  Their failure to notify police reveals greater concern for the college’s image than for the protection of victims, and the healing and justice they deserve. As 31 year-old Iraq war veteran and Penn State graduate Thomas Day wrote in a scathing criticism of a generation of failed leadership, “This failure of a generation is as true in the halls of Congress as it is at Penn State.”

Victims and their families suffered from initial response to the revelations of sexual violence at Penn State.  The fact that at first 5,000 students took to the streets to show support for Paterno, rather than stood in solidarity with and concern for the victims, was surely re-traumatizing.  Penn State student president T.J. Bard aptly pointed out "we watched as mayhem built a false sense of community." It is this illusion of togetherness that can be so dangerous in human society.  An unquestioning attitude, blind obedience to authority, and unwillingness to report wrongdoing by one’s friends -- all these behaviors help explain why seemingly decent people fail others in times of greatest need.  Thankfully, the mood shifted a week into the scandal, as students and the community became vocal in support of victims.  Could that same shift happen in a pre-genocidal frenzy that can take over a society?

I am the learning director of a documentary film called Coexist and for the past year, I’ve taught the film in a variety of schools and on campuses all over North America. Coexist is a film about the complexity and limitations of reconciliation and forgiveness in post-genocide Rwanda.  It is also a film about our own limitations, as a species, at recognizing and respecting difference. And it is a film about the cycle of violence, and how today’s victims can easily become tomorrow’s perpetrators, unless they learn how to stop it.  When I work with students to unpack the messages of the film, as I did to a packed crowd on November 9th at Stonehill College near Boston, they are quick to make a connection between the behaviors that contributed to genocide in Rwanda and the behaviors that leave some feeling singled out on campus. The damage caused by those who stand by and allow harm to happen to targeted groups in middle and high schools and on college campuses is oft noted with grave concern in the workshops I conduct. Making assumptions about others, name-calling, teasing, humiliating, stereotyping, intolerance, and harassment—including sexual harassment, and are all-too-common behaviors. Just last week a major national survey reported that 48% of students in grades 7-12 experienced some form of sexual harassment in person or electronically.

What a time to be working with youth to help reinforce their understanding of misuse of power, the damage caused by silence of bystanders, and the importance of becoming upstanders!  Wherever we turn, there is a story about lack of leadership, collusion with brutality, and refusal to denounce deplorable behavior of friends and those seen by their peers as “nice people.”  Sadly, there are far too many examples of emotional and physical pain experienced by victims, whether of child sexual abuse, bullying, or other forms of cruelty.

By teaching Coexist to new generations, we hope to help them recognize abuse, mistreatment, stereotyping, and scapegoating in all its forms, and commit themselves to stopping it and holding perpetrators accountable. As is often the case, perpetrators are themselves the product of degrading and dehumanizing circumstances. Victims, their families, as well as perpetrators must get professional and community support for healing.  One of the things that can most soothe victims is knowing that onlookers will no longer be disengaged, that they've done an inventory of their own moral conduct, and concluded that they must step in and speak out.  The creation of a strong culture of upstanders is the best insurance policy to protect future victims, whether of bullying, sexual violence, or genocide.  Being a bystander is a choice, and it's that poor choice of standing by and failing to act that allowed Sandusky to prey on more young boys for years after his criminal behavior was first discovered.


That's a message that students, and adults, at Penn State, and in schools and communities around the world are ready to learn. Are we willing to give them the opportunity?

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