Penn State faces uncertain path forward in Freeh report aftermath

Penn State University is reeling in the wake of an extensive and damning report by former FBI director Louis Freeh that cited several of the school’s most powerful leaders — including revered head football coach Joe Paterno — with concealing the activities of convicted child sex offender and former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky over more than a decade. The report’s findings cast a dark shadow over a school still trying to digest the scope of Sandusky’s repeated unreported offenses. As the university continues to take stock of its shortcomings related to the scandal, campus safety in State College and around the country is the latest issue of concern. As the Associated Press reported:

For more than two decades, colleges and universities have been required to publicly share details of campus crimes and report murders, rapes, robberies, arson and other serious offenses to the federal government.

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The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins discusses her exclusive interview with Penn State legend Joe Paterno, in which the former head football coach spoke at length about the child sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. (Jan. 14)

The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins discusses her exclusive interview with Penn State legend Joe Paterno, in which the former head football coach spoke at length about the child sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. (Jan. 14)

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That requirement was apparently unheeded by former Penn State President Graham Spanier, other top officials and the larger ranks of university employees responsible for student safety, the recently released investigation into the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal concluded. The report by former FBI director Louis Freeh found that, outside the campus police department in State College, “awareness and interest” in the federal law known as the Clery Act was “significantly lacking.”

The 1990 law is named for Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered four years earlier by a fellow student at a campus that’s about a three-hour drive from Penn State.

National campus safety experts say such problems spread far beyond Penn State, even as the U.S. Department of Education has stepped up enforcement in recent years and teamed up with the FBI on some inquiries.

“This is a much broader concern,” said S. Daniel Carter, director of a campus safety project at a charitable foundation formed by the families of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting victims. “Penn State is a microcosm of the entire field of higher education.”

First-year head football coach Bill O’Brien has the unenviable task of trying to pick up the pieces for a team rocked by scandal. And despite the immense pressure he faces to rebuild a program whose imaged may be tarnished beyond repair, he is already proving to be a valuable leader. As the AP reported:

In seven months on the job, Bill O’Brien has turned into much more than just the new leader of the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Perhaps no head coach has ever inherited such a challenge in his rookie campaign.

“He’s kind of our rock. He sets the tone for the rest of us,” guard John Urschel. “He sets a very good precedent for this program.”

Lately, any good news out of the football program has been overshadowed by the findings of former FBI director Louis Freeh’s investigation into the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Former coach Joe Paterno and three other school officials, Freeh said last week, concealed abuse allegations dating back to 1998.

O’Brien, hired in early January, released a statement through a team spokesman last week that said he was reading the report and would offer recommendations to identify what changes needed to be made in football.

“I stand with the University leadership in a shared commitment to driving a culture of honesty, integrity, responsible leadership and accountability at all levels and within all units of our institution. We can and we must do better,” O’Brien said. “Nonetheless, I too remain proud of the accomplishments and character of Penn State’s many generations of student-athletes, and I look forward to doing my part to ensure we emerge stronger than before.”

But O’Brien’s best efforts may be inconsequential if the school or the NCAA decides to shutdown the Nittany Lions’ football program for any extended period. And that decision — as polarizing as it may be — will likely be discussed in the near future. Post columnist Jason Reid believes Penn State football needs to take a timeout:

The NCAA’s 444-page manual contains no language directly addressing appropriate punishment for concealing information regarding child sexual abuse. But in light of the shameful conduct of Penn State’s leadership, revealed Thursday in the Freeh report, the NCAA must use its authority to do what’s needed now: Shut down the Nittany Lions football program.

If the Freeh report released Thursday is accurate in its assessment of the university’s role in the worst scandal in college sports history, then the engine that enabled longtime child sexual predator Jerry Sandusky must be switched off, at least temporarily.

The good news is that the NCAA is at least examining what its role should be in this horrific mess.

The organization is awaiting Penn State’s response to a November letter sent by NCAA President Mark Emmert, in which Emmert requested answers to questions “concerning compliance with institutional control and ethics policies.” The key matter for the NCAA to determine is whether its authority to punish for “lack of institutional control” is as applicable to egregious criminal behavior as it is to providing extra benefits to teenagers.

If the NCAA expands the term’s traditional definition, it could severely punish the football program and athletic department. What happened at Penn State should be included under the umbrella.

More coverage of the Penn State scandal and the Freeh report from Washington Post Sports:

Sally Jenkins: Truth is, Paterno lied

Eugene Robinson: A coach’s shame

Freeh report will have a lasting impact

Jason Reid: NCAA should shut down Penn State football

Tracee Hamilton: Freeh report exposes culture of reverence

Joe Paterno’s only interview on Penn State scandal

Video: Joe Paterno speaks on the Sandusky scandal

What is the impact on Joe Paterno’s legacy?

 
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