Dear Citizens of Happy Valley,
Unfortunately, it is common for child predators to develop trusting relationships with children for the sole purpose of sexually abusing them. What is far less common is for a college football coach and founder of a charity that was originally established as a foster home for troubled boys to be accused of performing oral and anal sex on male children in a college locker room, only for the incident to go unreported to authorities by other university officials.
As almost all of you are aware, this horrific chain of events has happened at your beloved Penn State.
Many of you are ashamed, disturbed, and concerned that the image of your institution has been damaged. Some of you have even begged fellow community members to suggest ways to move beyond this institutional blemish. For instance, a post titled “Unhappy Valley” on Happyvalley.com reads:
Will you stand for your alma mater and the place you love being defined by this unbelievable scandal? Who will demand accountability? How can we come together and heal our community? You have a powerful voice, tell us what you think.
Although I am not a Happy Valley insider, I would like to help you answer such questions. I agree that you have a powerful voice; yet, I urge you to be strategic and unselfish in exercising that voice. If I were amongst your Penn State community, instead of dwelling in shame and making “image repair” the main goal, I would use this opportunity to educate the public about child sexual abuse and advocate for children who are at-risk for, or are victims of sexual abuse.
Apparently, the Penn State Board of Trustees has similar ideas for advocacy, as the fourth and final point of the action plan issued in response to the scandal is to “enhance educational programming around such topics.”
While the Board’s plan sounds warm, fluffy, and politically correct, if I were a Happy Valley insider, I wouldn’t sit around and wait on the Board of Trustees or other university officials to get the job done.
Instead, I would use my voice to organize or participate in grass roots efforts to support the Board’s plan. Rather than sitting in embarrassment, I would stand tall, screaming to the rest of the world that no matter who the law defines as a “mandatory reporter of child abuse,”being human is enough to qualify each and every person to report suspected or known cases of abuse. Furthermore, I would not forget the adverse physical and/or mental health problems that the six identified victims in this case have endured. I would also be sure to remember the two additional victims who have not yet been identified, and pray they are still alive.
Finally, I would demand that Penn State researchers who study issues related to the protection of children play a key role in the Board’s initiatives. I might suggest that they share with the children and adults of Happy Valley strategies for the prevention of child sexual abuse, including how to identify ways in which offenders desensitize and groom children with the intent of abusing them.
Happy Valley, I think most people would agree that the actions of a few do not represent your institution as a whole. Nevertheless, you can guarantee that the nation will be watching closely as you respond to this unfortunate happening. If you take your current agenda seriously, and put the welfare of children first, then image restoration will be an inevitable by-product.
Erin Harper is a school psychologist and doctoral student in School Psychology at Georgia State University. She is also a professional cake eater, with an expertise in cream cheese icing.