Courtesy of Respect Group Inc.
Penn State, Syracuse, Wisconsin. These three institutions, synonymous with academic and athletic excellence, have been tarnished by sexual abuse scandals. Lives were changed forever, innocence robbed, reputations turned upside down. Could this happen at Ohio State and what is the university doing to prevent it?
Legislation concerning mandatory sexual abuse reporting is pending in 25 states, but Ohio is not one of them. OSU has taken no additional action following the incidents at other schools, including two in the Big Ten.
Gene Smith, OSU athletic director, said he is confident about the educational tools OSU has in place, although the athletic department has not done anything concerning the hot-button issue of sexual abuse in athletics.
“I can’t say we do something that’s really unique, or really different since the Penn State case broke,” Smith said. “Obviously because of these cases we’ve heightened our conversation.”
Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL player who was sexually abused as a youth hockey player in Canada, said education and awareness is key to preventing instances of sexual abuse.
“People need to be able to have a conversation,” Kennedy said. “They don’t have to be experts in it, but we need to have that conversation if something isn’t right.”
Kennedy said OSU should provide as much education as possible to create a comfortable atmosphere for campus leaders and students.
“If you walked around Ohio State and you asked people, the leaders, the teachers, sport coaches and deans, ‘Can you give me the definition of abuse and the legal and moral definitions around it?’ The odds of them getting the right answer aren’t very good,” Kennedy said. “But when it comes down to it, we’re all expected to do the right thing. So why wouldn’t we want to clearly and explicitly educate all our people?”
‘What are we going to do here?’
In November, former PSU defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was accused of a range of illegal acts from touching boys’ legs to violently sexually assaulting them. Sandusky remains on house arrest as he awaits his trial.
Not even a month later, Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine was fired for allegedly sexually molesting numerous males, including former ball boys for the team. Some of those allegations dated back to the 1980s and 1990s.
Former Wisconsin athletic director John Chadima resigned after allegations were reported that he sexually assaulted a student during a Rose Bowl party in January. Wisconsin Chancellor David Ward released a statement Monday that said campus police will be investigating new allegations against Chadima.
The tragedies within these programs are something Smith said provided a learning experience for OSU, in that students can see education in action.
“It gives you a window of opportunity to say, ‘See, this is what we’ve been preaching and this why you should feel comfortable if you see something or if something uncomfortable happens to you, or if you feel uncomfortable with just how someone is interacting with you, you need to bring it forward,'” Smith said. “Unfortunately, when we see cases like that, you have to use them the best you can to educate the people you serve.”
Former sexual abuse victim speaks out about importance of education
Smith said he is constantly worried about sexual abuse happening at OSU.
“I’ve always had that concern all my life, every day. I’ve seen a lot of things,” Smith said. “I didn’t need the Penn State (scandal) to create those concerns.”
President E. Gordon Gee said he held a meeting Monday with his senior management council regarding the issue of sexual abuse and how OSU should deal with it going forward. Gee said he required his advisers to read New York Times reporter Pete Thamel’s coverage on what happened at PSU.
“The answer is that you don’t know what you don’t know,” Gee said. “And so we went around the table and we asked, ‘What did we learn from this? What are we going to do here?'”
Smith said he was not present at the meeting.
Gee also said he can empathize with Graham Spanier, PSU’s former president who resigned in wake of the Sandusky charges.
“More than likely is the fact that someone came into his office from the athletic department and said, ‘You know, we had an incident in our showers but we’ve taken care of it. By the way, we need $50 million for Beaver Stadium,'” Gee said. “You know, when you’re in my position, what happens is the bad news is underscored and the good news is tallied.”
The victims, the accused parties and the university will never be the same, Gee said. But he said he believes it’s time for PSU to move forward.
“I think that what happened at Penn State is enormously unfortunate,” he said. “Those victims were never the same and obviously it went on for a much longer period of time than it should have gone and the university should have acted more aggressively and I think we all agree with that.”
Smith said OSU reminded coaches, students and staff of anonymous reporting procedures during an all-staff meeting at the beginning of the year, due to its own previous compliance issues last year. He said it will be brought up again at the next all-staff meeting.
“We disclose all reporting rules, as a result of our NCAA case as well as the Penn State case,” Smith said. “Because that was another situation where people didn’t disclose, so we have an anonymous reporting line.”
Smith said the athletic department monitors the anonymous reporting line on a daily basis.
“We research every single thing that comes in,” Smith said. “That is the first thing we reminded all staff of last year, is that this anonymous reporting line is always open and available and carefully monitored.”
Gee said he thinks OSU has a substantially more open culture than
other places in the Big Ten.
“Not that we’re pure, because we’re not and we’ve had our own problems,” Gee said. “And second of all, we have rules and procedures that we’re now taking a look at again to make sure that in those kinds of instances, we will do the right thing and we’ll do it quickly and we’ll do it expeditiously and clearly.”
Scott Chipman, Big Ten assistant commissioner for communications, said all guidelines for sexual abuse are established on an “institutional level.”
States take action
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 25 states have introduced 63 bills concerning mandatory reporting of child abuse. Ohio is not a part of that list, according to the data.
That same list names seven bills pending in Pennsylvania, one of which would add school staff, faculty and coaches to the group of people required to report suspected child abuse.
Another one of the bills would require “individuals who have firsthand or secondhand knowledge of or reasonable cause to believe a child is being sexually abused to report the suspected child sexual abuse to law enforcement officials as soon as is practical.”
The Pennsylvania General Assembly has yet to vote on the bills.
Columbus-based attorney George Wolfe said Ohio law does not require everyday citizens to report sexual abuse, only certain licensed individuals.
“So nurses, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, police officers, teachers, social workers or counselors all have to report any sexual abuse,” he said. “This is the only child abuse law about reporting sexual abuse that I am aware of.”
In direct relation to the PSU scandal, the Virginia House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to bills that would add coaches and leaders of private sports teams for public and private universities to report abuse or neglect of children.
The three bills not only clearly state who is required to report sexual child abuse under Virginia law, but they also reduce the deadline to 24 hours for someone who suspects some type of child abuse to report it.
OSU, on the institutional level, has a policy to report sexual abuse acts.
“Any Human Resource Professional (HRP); supervisor, including faculty supervisors; chair/director; or faculty member who becomes aware of information that would lead a reasonable person to believe that sexual harassment has occurred will notify the (appropriate offices) within five working days of becoming aware of the information,” according to the policy.
According to research done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every one in six boys and every one in four girls will be sexually abused by the age of 18.
Further research done by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a non-profit anti-sexual assault organization, says 93 percent of child sexual assault victims will know their attacker, and 58.7 percent of those victims will be able to identify their attacker as an acquaintance.
That same research reflects the resounding and haunting effects that sexual abuse has on its victims. Sexual abuse survivors are three times more likely to suffer from depression and four times more likely to contemplate suicide.
Kennedy, who after retiring from the NHL founded Respect Group Inc., a group that advocates against sexual abuse, harassment and bullying, said he knows the psychological effects as an abuse survivor.
“It’s significant for the rest of their lives and the end result in some cases, not all cases, is suicide and that’s where it takes people,” Kennedy said.
Moving forward, setting the tone
Smith said OSU has processes in place to protect its athletes, including a sports psychologist and many other outlets of reporting suspected sexual abuse.
Leif Smith, the contracted athletics psychologist for OSU, said he is available specifically for athletes for performance needs, drug and alcohol counseling, and general counseling for anxiety, depression and other needs.
“So that’s a good thing about OSU is that we can keep a good pulse of what’s going on with the athletes and how they’re feeling, what’s going on, and really make sure they’re taken care of,” Leif Smith said.
Gene Smith said students, coaches, trainers and any other staff should go to their supervisor immediately if any sexual abuse is suspected.
“If you don’t feel comfortable going to your supervisor because that unit, that group dynamic may have something that is a problem, then you come directly to the athletic director,” Gene Smith said. “If you have an issue and you don’t feel comfortable talking to your coach, Leif is a resource, trainers are a resource.”
But Kennedy spoke of how victims can feel trapped, even with those outlets.
“It’s not just the perpetrators that damages and hurts the victim here. It’s the institutions and the bystanders because they’re out there recruiting and they’re making lots of promises, like, ‘We’re going to protect you and we won’t let anything happen to you,'” he said. “And then for those leaders to see something like that and not do anything about it, the athletes start to think, ‘Oh geez, they’re not doing anything for me or standing up for me, it must be my fault, maybe I deserve this.'”
Kennedy said the key is to provide an open-door policy and a platform for conversation moving forward.
“What has to happen is that throughout the whole organization and within the whole community and school is there needs to be a common language around these issues,” Kennedy said.
Gene Smith said he is aware conversation is the key to making athletes feel comfortable.
“We felt what is important is to provide multiple options, because people need a comfort level with who they’re telling,” Gene Smith said. “We all know this is a sensitive issue so who and where does the athlete feel comfortable taking it?”
But sports aren’t the only area in which OSU should be concerned with sexual abuse, Kennedy said.
“The high-profile sports get exposed more than some of the other instances, but it’s very near and dear to my heart because I know the damage that this stuff has on our individuals that go through it,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said university officials must set the tone for creating transparent and clear reporting procedures.
“When it comes down to it, most bystanders don’t know what the right thing is,” he said. “And it all comes down to leadership. If they know that the school and university officials are on board with a zero-tolerance policy around this stuff — they’re going to come forward. If the school hasn’t even recognized it, then nobody’s going to come forward.”