Riot police were deployed in State College, Pa., on Wednesday night as thousands of Penn State supporters vented their anger at the firing of Joe Paterno amid a scandal over the school’s handling of child sexual abuse allegations.
At around 12:20am local time Thursday, the university issued an official police dispersal order via Facebook, warning students to vacate downtown State College immediately. It came after several violent scenes in which protesters flipped over a media van and destroyed other property.
About 2,000 people gathered at Old Main and moved to an area called Beaver Canyon, a street ringed by student apartments that were used in past riots to pelt police, myFOXphilly.com reported.
But while several arrests were made, the disorder was controlled amid a strong presence from state police as the crowds returned to Old Main.
The disorder escalated after the school’s Board of Trustees held an emergency meeting Wednesday night and later announced at a news conference that they had dismissed Paterno, the longest-tenured coach in major-college football, and Graham Spanier, the school’s president for the past 16 years, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The actions followed the indictment over the weekend of Paterno’s longtime assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, on charges of child sex abuse over a 15-year period.
Hundreds of students gathered at the HUB-Robeson Center, the student union, to watch the news conference on a big screen. When the announcement came that Paterno would not coach again at Penn State, students gasped and hushed. Women began to weep.
John Surma, the board’s vice president, said he called Paterno at home Wednesday to deliver the news. He said the board’s vote was unanimous.
About two hours after the firing, Paterno came out of his house to greet about 200 students who had gathered there, myFOXphilly.com reported. "Pray for the [sexual abuse] victims," he told the crowd. "We love you."
He also issued a statement, obtained by FOX News Channel, saying that he was disappointed with the board’s decision but would have to accept it.
"A tragedy occurred, and we all have to have patience to let the legal process proceed," his statement said. "I appreciate the outpouring of support but want to emphasize that everyone should remain calm, and please respect the university, its property and all that we value."
Paterno added, "I have been incredibly blessed to spend my entire career working with people I love. I am grateful beyond words to all of the coaches, players and staff who have been a part of this program. And to all of our fans and supporters, my family and I will be forever in your debt."
Earlier Wednesday, Paterno had announced that he would retire at the end of the season, the WSJ reported.
He had planned to coach Saturday against Nebraska in what is the team’s final home game of the season. Just before 4:00pm local time, he left his home to attend football practice.
"At this moment, the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status," he said. "They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can."
Throughout the day at Penn State, a series of extraordinary scenes unfolded as published reports, official statements and in some cases, official silences, drew a portrait of a divided institution that was knocked off its axis.
Penn State posted Paterno’s announcement of his plan to retire at the end of the season on its website Wednesday, but the school administration did not address the coach’s status or clarify whether he would be on the sidelines for Saturday’s game.
All day, pressure mounted on the school. The US Department of Education said it would launch an investigation into whether Penn State complied with a federal law regarding the disclosure of criminal offenses on campus.
Paterno, 84, major-college football’s all-time wins leader, had come under criticism for how he responded to learning of an alleged incident involving Sandusky and a child in 2002.
Sandusky, a Penn State coach from 1969 to 1999, has been charged with 21 felony counts of sexually abusing eight boys over a decade and a half. Sandusky has maintained that he is innocent of the charges.
Upon hearing of the incident from an eyewitness, later identified as Mike McQueary, who is now the team’s wide-receivers coach, Paterno reported it to athletic director Tim Curley but not to police, according to state prosecutors.
Although Paterno has not been charged in the case, Pennsylvania state police commissioner Frank Noonan suggested there was a "moral responsibility" to contact police about potential sexual abuse involving children.
Curley and Gary Schultz, vice president for finance and business, have been charged with perjury in connection with their testimony before a grand jury considering the evidence against Sandusky. They allegedly failed to notify authorities about the alleged abuse. Curley and Schultz have maintained their innocence.
Assistant coach Tom Bradley will take over from Paterno in an interim capacity, while the school’s executive vice president and provost Rodney A. Erickson will replace Spanier as president.