As they watched Penn State struggle to contain a child sex-abuse scandal that ruined its once-pristine name and took down the mightiest of college coaches, schools around the country realized they needed to examine what they were doing so they wouldn’t see their reputations destroyed, as well.
At Mississippi, administrators passed a rule stating nobody 18 or over could have one-on-one contact with a minor.
At Kansas, they rewrote the language in their bylaws stating, in no uncertain terms, that any employee who didn’t comply with rules about reporting sex crimes could be fired.
To keep better tabs on who comes and goes from its campus, Stanford started running all its kids camps in-house instead of letting coaches run them independently.
And Southern California brought in none other than Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who wrote the report on the failings at Penn State, to brief top brass on what good policies and rules should look like.
In all, 55 of 69 BCS football schools — 79.7 percent of those playing at the highest level in college — either reviewed or strengthened their policies regarding minors on campus in the wake of the case involving Jerry Sandusky, an Associated Press review found.
”The conversation started the minute the Penn State situation was made public,” said Mississippi associate athletic director Lynnette Johnson, who called the 18-and-over policy the lynchpin of the changes at their campus in Oxford, Miss. ”We’ve been looking at our policies for quite some time and we wanted to build something that’s comprehensive, manageable and can actually be enforced.”
While schools were rewriting their rules, no fewer than 32 state governments were also reviewing their statutes, with at least 18 of those adopting new laws, most of them adding university employees and volunteers to the list of those required to report child sex abuse.
In November 2011, Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant coach, was arrested on 40 child sexual abuse counts. Additional counts were included in December, and some were dropped at the start of his trial. In the end, he was convicted on 45 of those counts and is serving a prison term of 30 to 60 years. Within days of his arrest, coach Joe Paterno was fired and the school president, Graham Spanier, was forced out.
A July 2012 report authored by Freeh detailed the flaws at Penn State and offered recommendations for change at the university. Penn State established a ”Progress” website detailing the multiple changes it is making in response to the scandal and the report.
But Penn State was hardly the only school that performed an unflinching review of its policies.
The AP canvassed the 69 schools in the BCS conferences in 2012, along with Notre Dame, and found that, in addition to the 55 that said they reviewed or changed their rules in response to the Sandusky case, another 12 had recently done that work in response to a push from the U.S. Department of Education, or because of incidents that occurred on their own campuses or laws passed in their states.
”We didn’t want to be in a position where we could say it couldn’t happen here,” said Mark Land, spokesman at Indiana University, one of the universities that reviewed and beefed up its policies. ”Penn State is a great university and does great things, and it happened there, so we felt like if we didn’t learn something from Penn State, that was on us.”
Two schools, Oklahoma and South Carolina, reported no action: South Carolina sent AP a copy of its sexual-harassment policy, last revised in 2010; Oklahoma said its policies are under constant scrutiny, though events elsewhere don’t trigger changes.
Not that rules can prevent everything. Before the scandal at Penn State, the university had a long list of rules on the books that were in line with what existed at other schools. Despite that, the Freeh Report noted that 234 of 735 coaches paid to work at summer sports camps in 2009 didn’t have their required background checks completed before their camp began.
David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center said anecdotes like that help explain why new policies and laws are important, but maybe not as important as the light shed on the issue of child sex abuse because of the Sandusky case.
”I don’t think the problem at Penn State was that they didn’t have enough rules, or that they didn’t have a mandatory law that required this reporting,” Finkelhor said. ”I think the problem was that they didn’t have a higher level of awareness about the problem itself and they thought they could kind of get away with the way they were handling it.”
In searching the states, AP reporters across the country checked databases from the last two years of legislation. The AP also referred to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has tracked Sandusky-related bills.
In Florida, the Legislature passed what many are calling the most expansive reporting law in the country. It includes fines of up to $1 million on any university whose administration or campus police knowingly fail to report child abuse on campus. Several campuses around the state reacted, as well.
”As an institution, we had very sound policies in place,” Miami athletic director Blake James said. ”I think it was obviously a real reminder to everyone of the need to make sure that all policies are being followed, and in certain cases there was the elevation of analysis that was put in place.”
The overwhelming number of schools and states that made changes in a relatively short amount of time runs counter to the normally slow-moving wheels of state governments and university boardrooms. The action reflects what Mark Chaffin, who directs research at the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect at University of Oklahoma, said was a much-needed continuation of moves to protect children that have been triggered by sex scandals at child-serving organizations, including the Catholic church and the Boy Scouts.
”Given everything that’s been in the news, it’s not too surprising that universities would start to put out some policies and do some education,” Chaffin said.
When the universities did their reviews, some administrators were surprised at the number of minors who come to their campuses for a variety of programs that extend well beyond football camps.
At Minnesota, for instance, up to 300,000 minors visit campus — 114,000 of them for 4H club events. A 10-year review of campus crime statistics there revealed four cases involving minors. One of those cases resulted in charges in 2000 when the victim came forward.
”We thought this was a pretty safe place,” university general counsel Bill Donohue said.
Nevertheless, the school beefed up its policy and added language that specifically applied to the safety of minors on campus.
In Texas, state legislators passed guidelines in 2011 — before the Sandusky case made headlines — for minors attending camps. The law applied to camps with at least 20 campers who spend four days on campus.
”That’s a big loophole,” Texas Tech athletic department spokesman Blayne Beal said. ”We wanted more stringent than that.”
So, in May, the school passed a tougher rule putting the guidelines in place for any program that brings minors in, regardless of the number of children or duration of their stay.
”I think everybody took a look at themselves and what they were doing, what they weren’t doing, to make sure that the policies they had in place were the best for young people and were best to protect the institution,” Beal said.
In addition to bringing in Freeh, who has a child enrolled at the Los Angeles school, USC also hired an outside consultant who helped put in place an awareness campaign for people on facilities staff and janitors — the so-called ”first eyes” — who might be the first to witness a crime involving children.
At Auburn, and a handful of other schools, the review found departments across campus had several rules on the books but had never consolidated them in one place.
”Unfortunately, at times, it takes a shocking event happening somewhere else to make you aware that you may have some deficiencies that need looking into yourself,” said Chris O’Gwynn, who heads Auburn’s risk management and safety department. ”Penn State did cause us to want to look at that and do something from a generalized campus approach.”