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A Penn State alum wonders: Why wasn’t more done?

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Penn State is learning some hard lessons right now.
Lynn Comella

I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, and like most people, I’ve watched with horror and disbelief as details have emerged about the sexual assault and rape allegations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The depths of silence and evasion, and the appearance of a widespread cover-up by a number of people in positions of power within the university—people who should have intervened, called the authorities and made sure that no other boys were put in harm’s way—are impossible to wrap one’s head around. With each passing day more bombshells drop, including Sandusky’s cringe-worthy interview with Bob Costas on NBC’s Rock Center, where he acknowledged that, yes, he had showered with boys, horsed around with them, loved being around them. What the hell were these adults thinking when they chose to look the other way and do nothing?

Education was my path out of Erie, and after two years of a rather inauspicious start to my college career, I transferred to Penn State’s main campus in State College in 1988. My memories of “Happy Valley” are fond ones. I loved school, enjoyed my professors and worked as hard as I’ve ever worked in my life, often getting up at five in the morning to study for an exam or finish a paper with the goal of graduating with as close to a 4.0 as possible.

Penn State is also where I cut my feminist teeth. I minored in women’s studies, participated in Take Back the Night marches and took courses with titles like the Politics of Reproduction and the Anthropology of Gender. I volunteered at the local rape crisis hotline and read Our Bodies, Ourselves from start to finish. And while I never bled blue and white, nor, for that matter, ever attended a football game, my experience at Penn State made it possible for me to imagine that someday I, too, could become a university professor.

In 1979, when I was 12 and in middle school, my sister, who was 8 years old at the time, was taunted and grabbed by two older boys on her way home from school. When she got home, my sister shared this incident with my brother, telling him that two boys had “grabbed her butt.” My father overheard this and, outraged, leapt into action.

I was at gymnastics practice when I got a phone call. It was my father. He told me about the incident and demanded to know the last names of the boys involved, both of whom were classmates of mine. He was going to call the police.

I was mortified. I begged him not to. These were my friends, I told him. I go to school with these boys. Couldn’t we just chalk it up to an innocent form of teasing, of boys just having fun and “horsing around”? He would have none of it. “If we don’t take action,” he firmly told me, “then we are sending the message to your sister that it is okay for people to touch her without her permission.” On this point he was adamant.

My father called the police. The next day, two officers came to my sister’s fourth grade classroom. Her teacher pulled her out of class and she stood in the hallway, all 4-feet-nothing of her, and recounted the embarrassing details of what had transpired the day before.

The boys were subsequently suspended from school and my biggest concern—as a self-centered pre-teen kid—was that my father was responsible for reporting them to the authorities. I weathered the resulting alienation from my peers—these were popular boys, after all—but it felt like an injustice, like an over-reaction, like my middle-school experience with my peers was, and would forever be, irrevocably tarnished. It was a hard pill to swallow. But again, I was 12.

Years later, I was able to appreciate what a remarkable thing my parents had done for my sister: They had sent a clear and powerful message that her body was her property and that no one—no one—could touch it without her permission. And because she was only 8, and not able to grant that permission or effectively intervene on her own behalf and say, “No. Stop it. This is not okay. I am not comfortable with this,” they, as adults and parents, did what they felt they needed to do to make sure she was protected.

“It was probably one of the strongest messages that Dad ever sent,” my sister, also a Penn State alum, told me this week. “It was abundantly clear, and particularly as I got older, that it is not okay for people to touch your body in inappropriate ways. I got that message from that day forward, and that message stayed with me forever.”

It’s a message she now communicates to her 5-year-old son. “Nobody should touch your privates,” she tells him. “It’s okay when you go to the doctor. But if it is not your doctor, it is not okay for people to touch your body. And if anyone tries to touch your body, you tell them no. And you tell Mommy and Daddy as well.”

I only wish that Joe Paterno and everyone else at Penn State who knew of Jerry Sandusky’s predilection for young boys—and clearly, they knew—had sent the same strong and unwavering message. Regardless of the fallout it may have caused to the football program or the university’s brand or its fundraising efforts, one fact remains: Young boys and girls rely on the adults in their lives to protect and take care of them. It is incomprehensible, and very, very sad, that so many people at Penn State failed to learn this most basic lesson.

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