The conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of sexual abuse ought to send a collective chill down the spines of every parent, educator, coach, and school administrator -- everywhere.
Convicted of sexually assaulting 10 boys, prosecutors said Sandusky used the Second Mile charity, which he ostensibly founded to provide social services to at-risk youth, to target boys to groom and abuse.
As the "beloved" Penn State assistant football coach, he committed indiscretions in locker room showers, hotel rooms and in his own home. In a strange twist, shortly after the case went to the jury, lawyers for Sandusky's adopted son, Matt, said Matt had been prepared to testify that his father had abused him.
The 68-year-old Sandusky will likely spend the rest of his life in jail, but what about all the rest of us who didn't see, didn't hear, or didn't believe a child?
When the scandal broke, Penn State fired its president, Graham Spanier, as well as its legendary coach, Joe Paterno, who was Sandusky's mentor and boss. Two other university officials were also fired and charged with perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse. And the university hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to do an investigation, trained employees in recognizing and reporting child abuse, and enunciated a new policy on the responsibilities of staff in this area.
There have been passionate outcries to reform child abuse laws in Pennsylvania and other states. There is no doubt that laws and policies need to be strengthened, but that is only part of the problem and it is not enough to stop the scourge of child sex abuse. In the last few weeks, allegations surfaced about ongoing sex abuse of students at the prestigious Horace Mann School in Riverdale, NY, and just this week, Tek Young Lin, a retired -- and revered -- teacher, admitted that he had sex with several of his students there.
Lest we think this is just about Penn State and Jerry Sandusky, or the Catholic Church or the Horace Mann School, it's not. It's about all of our schools, all of our social and religious organizations, all of our athletic teams, all of our children, and particularly all of us. As parents and educators, we have to stop being reverent, diffident and polite, and learn to be vigilant in regard to children's welfare and safety. That means having our antennae go up when there are certain signs.
- If someone is too good to be true, think twice. Just why would another adult want to take your child home for overnight stays?
- When a child doesn't want to be in a particular situation or with a certain individual, there's usually a good reason. Take the child seriously.
- It's also possible that a child might be afraid to admit that a trusted adult is doing something that just doesn't feel right. Both educators and parents need to be alert to subtle signs, as well as talking to children about good and bad touching.
- Just because someone is affable and charismatic, doesn't mean he has character or integrity. Sociopaths can be very charming.
- When children describe sexual encounters, they are either experiencing something or getting this information from someone else who did. Don't dismiss it as imagination.
- Hold school, sports, church, club, and Child Protective Services personnel responsible for following up on any reports you make, whether you are a parent or a colleague. Don't drop the ball if you have suspicions.
- Nepotism and favoritism is a breeding ground for looking the other way. That seems to be what happened at Penn State. How can anyone properly supervise, let alone discipline, friends and family members? Parents and taxpayers have a right to know whether there are similar "old boys' clubs" in their schools, financed with public money.
- Parents have the right to expect -- and demand, if necessary -- that their children are safe at school and at after-school programs.
The light is shining brightly on this problem, which sadly is not isolated to one school or one institution. It is everyone's responsibility to put an end to this plague of child sexual abuse. The antidote is certainly more awareness and watchfulness, and more care and caution. This week's outrage needs to be harnessed into action that results in the ongoing protection of our children's welfare.
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