As the details surrounding the Penn State scandal continue to emerge, I’ve been wrestling (both as a professional and as a parent) to make sense of it all. What weighs most heavily on my mind is that this is a situation where all parents must feel violated to some degree. Repeated sexual abuse of young boys happened at a terrific university, under the watch of a revered coach who was known for his moral standards as much as his winning program. Esteemed members of the university are accused of not acting on information and not trying to prevent further harm to youth. This seems surreal – State College is a very pleasant town, to the extent that people near and far refer to the area as “Happy Valley.” I know all of this first-hand, as I spent four years at Penn State pursuing and receiving my doctoral degree.
What are we to think and do when our most trusted people and institutions haven’t done the right thing? As parents, we go out of our way to place children in safe situations. If a child has an opportunity to spend time with professionals we admire and trust, a parent is going to think that this is a great thing. And if a child is troubled, we’d be delighted that an organization run by someone we believe to be trustworthy would be there to take an interest.
To me, the real scandal here is that trusted figures did not do what they should have done when one of their own committed unthinkable acts. It’s difficult to admit, but the reality is that there are people in the world who do bad things to kids. They’re out there, and we parents don’t have the ability to follow our kids every second of the day. That said, part of what we do is put our trust ininstitutions rather than just one person – it’s not perfect, but it’s probably the best we can do. And when we learn about something like the Penn State scandal – when we find out that the most trusted individuals in the highest leadership positions did not do what they should have done to protect children – our faith is shaken.
Where does this leave us as parents? I don’t want to start doubting the trustworthiness of my child’s school. I don’t want to run criminal checks on her teachers, coaches, instructors, and other adults in her life. I don’t want to discourage her from experiencing the world or make her afraid of adults. But I do think I need to convey – as a parent speaking to my child – that although we trust all the adults in our world, and we respect them, if you ever feel that an adult is not treating you right, or is making you feel uncomfortable, or is doing anything you think is weird or unusual, you need to get yourself away from that adult. Immediately. You can trust your parents to go to the right people at the institutional level, and we will assume that they will handle it rapidly and professionally. But if for some reason they don’t, your parents will do everything they need to do to make sure you – and other children – remain safe. You can, and should, always trust your parents.