TOPICS > Education

What Are the Lessons from the Penn State Scandal?

July 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
What can other institutions learn from the Penn State sex abuse case? Jeffrey Brown talks to Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children's Alliance; Elizabeth LeTourneau of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

JEFFREY BROWN: And — and we return to the Penn State story with a wider perspective on what’s happened and what should be taken from it.

For that, we’re joined by Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, which works with groups around the country to provide services for victims of child abuse, Elizabeth Letourneau, a researcher and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.

Teresa Huizar, start with you. When you think about lessons learned here, part of this is clearly an institutional failing. What — what — you look at Penn State, what do you see that jibes with what you know of other cases?

TERESA HUIZAR, Executive Director, National Children’s Alliance: I think one of the lessons learned here is that for any child-serving organization or any organization that has children on campus at all, it’s entirely possible for a perpetrator, an offender, to really use that organization as a way to identify potential victims and to groom those victims over time.

And I think that in the absence of appropriate child protection policies and procedures, that’s more likely to happen than not. And so I hope that one of the lessons learned from this is the implementation of commonsense child protection policies and procedures.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me come back to some of those.

But, Elizabeth Letourneau, I want to ask you, what keeps people from reporting cases? What do we know? We just heard in our report about the janitors in that case and their fear. And we heard about some of the officials. What do we know about what keeps people from reporting — or reporting in some instances?

ELIZABETH LETOURNEAU, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: I think what this case really shows is that it still is very difficult for people to respond appropriately to child sexual abuse when the offender is someone they know well, maybe in a position of power, but also people who are in our social circles, in our families, people who we know, like, maybe love.

We have done a lot in this country over the last 20 years to really target stranger danger, but the reality is that few sex offenders are strangers to their victims. Most offenders are well known to their victims and well known to their victims’ parents and other people around them.

So I think what we really need to take from this is to start looking towards primary prevention of child sexual abuse, to look at how we can take a public health approach to child sexual abuse and really emphasize primary prevention and recognize that offenders are very different from one another. They’re not all the same. And they don’t all fit the monster profile that I think many people have of sex offenders.

JEFFREY BROWN: Scott Berkowitz, what would you add to that?

SCOTT BERKOWITZ, Founder and President, Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network: Well, you know, I think that the report today outlined failings that went way beyond the individual that we knew about.

I think that this is going to put fear into a lot of university presidents and those running schools across the country, because it put them on notice that they need to take a really close look at the way they do things and change things up, or they risk devastation.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about my question about reporting, the rules of reporting, who is supposed to report and in what cases? I mean, there’s a — many things can happen short of seeing something — as in this case, seeing terrible abuses in a locker room. But many things can happen short of that.

SCOTT BERKOWITZ: That’s right.

The laws are different in every state. They fall under a couple of categories. In some states, anyone who has a reasonable suspicion of abuse is supposed to report to the authorities. But in many other states, it’s only required to report if they’re a professional, if they’re a caregiver, a doctor, teacher, or someone who is in a profession like that.

But regardless of your state law, you don’t really need to know what your state’s law is because common sense should rule here. If you have a real suspicion of abuse or in a case like this, where this went way beyond suspicion, this is people actually witnessing criminal acts, that should be enough to get you on the phone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Teresa Huizar, common sense, you might think, and yet it doesn’t hold. It doesn’t…

TERESA HUIZAR: Well, I think two things, one that we — all adults should have a sense of moral responsibility to report abuse and suspected abuse.

And that’s something that I think — the outrage around this case, I think it has been a watershed moment for this country in terms of recognizing that all adults have this moral responsibility to do that, irrespective of the law.

I think the other piece of this, though, is that universities and other organizations really do have to have appropriate policies and procedures limiting or eliminating one adult/one child contact, because that’s really the context in which most child sexual abuse is occurring.

And so — and any of those kinds of contacts have to be observable and interruptible. And in this case, the sort of testimony we heard in the trial itself and what came out of this report today, there were just many instances where adult — one adult and one child were alone together in just absolutely inappropriate situations. All of those were preventable.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this is what you were talking about earlier about what institutions could do and should do.

TERESA HUIZAR: Absolutely, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Elizabeth Letourneau, what would you add to that? What do you want to see? You were talking about the need to — for prevention. What do you want to see institutions do in particular?

ELIZABETH LETOURNEAU: Well, what I want to see a nation do is really put the resources into testing interventions.

So we have a lot of interventions that sound on the face of them very defensible, very commonsense, but we have done nothing to test interventions to prevent sexual abuse. We have got to start putting more money into that.

Right now, we focus all of our energy, all of our resources on known offenders. And if we had done things right back in 1998, if Penn State had done the right thing, they would have prevented 13 years of sex offending, but they wouldn’t have prevented that first offense.

And so we have got to put science, resources, money into the effort of identifying best practices for institutions, for youth-serving institutions, schools, youth-hosting institutions and for parents to keep their children as safe as possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Scott Berkowitz, one of the interesting aspects of this is that while we focus on these very high-profile cases, I know there are some studies that suggest that the number of cases in the U.S. has actually been declining.

I gather there’s some debate about how you count these things, but it struck me as interesting. Is that true? Or does it tell us anything about where we’re at?


All the data suggests that child sexual abuse and sexual abuse of — sexual assault of adults has dropped significantly over the last 15 years or so. But there’s still a sexual assault in this country every two minutes. So we have got a long way to go before we fix the problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that suggest, though, that this awareness that we’re all talking about is getting out there? Or what accounts for the drop? Do we know?

SCOTT BERKOWITZ: I think that the — I think that people are far more aware of it.

I think that one of the best things that came out of this case was seeing the almost universal revulsion. The way the media handled it, I think they handled it very responsibly overall, and the way the public reacted almost universally. So I think that there’s a much better understanding now than there was a year ago of how serious a crime this is.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re agreeing with that?


TERESA HUIZAR: Absolutely.

Over the past 30 years, there have been many interventions. And I think it’s something that we should understand that those had had some effect, which means that more resources should go to interventions that are demonstrated effective. And I think the other thing is that this community awareness and this lack of tolerance in the public for child sexual abuse is all a positive thing.

It’s simply a shame that it has to come on the heels of these tragic cases, of course. And, as you pointed out, there’s much work yet to be done.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Elizabeth Letourneau, just briefly with you at the end here, we have mentioned laws. It sounds to me like all three of you are suggesting it’s not really so much about laws at this point, even though the laws are there.

ELIZABETH LETOURNEAU: Yes, I think we have done everything we can with laws that really target stranger danger. And we have done that effectively.

We have had a reduction for 20 years in child sexual assault rapes. But that reduction has plateaued. And I think it’s because we have gone as far as we can with the criminal justice system. We have got to start putting other resources into a broader public health approach and again, like I said, really focusing on primary prevention if we want to keep those rates going down.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Elizabeth Letourneau, Scott Berkowitz, Teresa Huizar, thank you all very much.