Penn State, Joe Paterno, and relationships between vulnerable children and authority figures


There is no need to recite the volumes already, or to be, written about the story at Penn State. (I write, when they are on the field against Nebraska, at this moment, behind 10-0. Entering the game they were the 12th ranking football team in the nation, their opponent the 19th ranking team).

Of course, all that is totally irrelevant. As one commentator said a few minutes ago, it is as if the quarterback, Paterno, fumbled the ball on the goal line at the edge of the greatest victory in history….

I have another perspective that may add a bit to the necessary conversation.

Being human, with a fair amount of seniority amongst my cohorts in today’s population, I know a little bit about human nature.

Being Catholic, I know how stupidity plays out among power people who think that they can contain and control incidents of sexual abuse within the confines of their church authority (that began to unravel in the 1990s, a long time ago, and continues to this day.) It didn’t and doesn’t work. But some in authority still don’t quite get it.

But I have another insight, born of representing public school teachers in a teachers union from 1972-2000 and seeing the statutory transition from, initially, restrictions on corporal punishment (spanking), to mandatory reporting of even a suspicion of abuse of a child by an adult. The transition was complete long before my staff career ended. What astonishes me in the current situation is that this bunch at Penn State could have been so utterly clueless.

There have been, are, and will continue to be incidents of abuse in public education and elsewhere. We are humans, after all.

But in my particular venue, public education, the incidence was very, very tiny, but when uncovered very, very visible. (In the United States today there are perhaps nearly 50,000,000 children in schools; and perhaps 6,000,000 school employees including substitute teachers, aides, bus drivers, cooks, and on and on and on. With such an immense cohort, in school for an average of 171 days a year in Minnesota, there is no end of possibilities for problems, but amazingly few problems occur.)

In Minnesota, the relevant statute has existed since 1975, and can be viewed in its entirety here. It has been amended frequent times, and doubtless Penn State will cause it to be revisited once again.

I remember the general evolution of this law.

It began pretty simply, probably in 1975, essentially prohibiting spanking of, in anatomy terms, the gluteus maximus (to we lay people, the “rear end”). I don’t recall the genesis of the Law, but probably it was from some excess by someone, somewhere. It was a difficult adjustment for the enforcer in a school, often the shop teacher, more often the principal. The paddle had to go. To this day, there are some who advocate the paddle….

As years went on, the Law evolved.

I wish I could remember the year, but I think it was sometime in the 1980s, when the mandatory reporting provision was first enacted. This came to be called the ‘no touch’ rule in my public education jurisdiction.

The reaction was in the direction of zero tolerance of adult-child touch, in any of its manifestations.

I remember the most dramatic aberration (response): kindergarten teachers, virtually all female, became fearful of doing such innocuous things as helping a kid tie his or her shoelaces.

As time went on, the system and the individuals found more equilibrium, but the point remains, as it relates to Penn State, that the business of adult-vulnerable child relationships has been an active part of legal policy discussion since at least 1975 – 36 years.

There is an entire additional discussion, in this case, of the role of football as a symbol of power and authority in our society. Joe Paterno was an institution because he “brought home the bacon” for Penn State in prestige and money.

But, as I say, that is an entire other discussion.