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Reflecting on a Riot

November 11, 2011

After the Penn State University Board of Trustees announced late Wednesday night that Joe Paterno, the legendary head football coach, would be fired effective immediately, two dozen or so students gathered on the coach’s modest lawn in the small town of State College. There was crying, hugging, and a little cheering when Paterno and his wife emerged to acknowledge the crowd. But for the most part, the crowd was quiet and the tone was somber.

Later that evening, in the nearby downtown area of State College, the scene couldn’t have been more different. What started as loud but nonviolent chanting escalated into full-scale riots: windows were shattered, cars (and a television news van, at left) were overturned, lamp posts were toppled, punches were thrown and pepper spray was fired.

It’s easy to respond with disbelief or a roll of the eyes – after all, many people think Paterno should have alerted law enforcement, not just university administrators, as soon as he learned of the allegations of sex abuse of children. People far outside of State College are infuriated, and the protesters have been widely criticized. One columnist wrote, "This is an invite that I'm terrified to make because it would mean some sort of association, but anytime you people in Happy Valley want to join us in the real world, feel free. Where was the outrage we saw last night when all this horrific news came to light?"

Yet many student affairs professionals reflecting on the episode Thursday sympathized with all those for whom the symbolism and ideals of Penn State have almost instantaneously been eviscerated – even, to an extent, with those who chose to vent their frustrations in not-so-productive ways.

And, they said, now that the anger has subsided, everyone can start to move on.

“The institution’s going to have to step forward and I think really start the healing process with the students. And student affairs professionals can play a huge role in that,” said Julie Payne Kirchmeier, assistant provost for University College and director of housing at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. “One of the worst things Penn State could do would be to completely sweep this under the rug and move forward that way, because I don’t think it would give [students] closure.” (She doesn’t expect Penn State to ignore what happened, though.)

News media estimated last night that as many as 2,000 of Penn State’s 40,000 students had turned out by the end of the night, though the number of people who caused actual damage was small. Most students, in contrast, were sad, embarrassed and disappointed – or, as The Daily Collegian’s editorial board put it, “appalled.”

While the most vocal protesters expressed frustration mainly with the firing of Paterno, who donated millions to the university and made Penn State a football powerhouse with what was, until now, seen as a program far more honorable than many others in big-time athletics, the students were likely reacting to much more than that one moment.

In less than a week, the campus went from perfectly normal to utterly chaotic. It started Friday with the arrest of Jerry Sandusky, the football team’s former defensive coordinator, who has been charged with sexually assaulting up to eight young boys, some on university property, over a 15-year period. Also charged for failing to report one incident and lying about what they knew to a grand jury were athletics director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, senior vice president for finance and business, both of whom were pushed out Monday. The grand jury’s report lays out the timeline of events and details of the charges in graphic detail.

As speculation grew that Paterno and University President Graham B. Spanier wouldn’t make it through the year, Paterno announced Wednesday morning that he would retire at the end of the season. But after an emergency meeting that night, the board announced it would not allow him or Spanier to work another day.

Paterno's ouster was the last straw for the students, a few hundred of whom immediately congregated outside Main Hall to protest the decision before ultimately moving downtown. As the evening wore on, the mob grew.

Within the span of a few days, “everything has fallen apart,” said Shannon Ritter, who works in undergraduate admissions and recruitment for Penn State’s School of Theatre. While Ritter, like so many others, has been devastated by the developments, she’s focusing on the positive – though less widely-reported – activity that’s going on: things like students holding vigils for the alleged victims, faculty throwing out their lectures so that students can ask questions about what’s going on, campus organizations sending out e-mails saying where people can go to talk.

“We’re all trying to find a way to deal with this, and some students are very angry and hurt and confused. Both of our leaders are gone, and really, everyone – not just the students, everyone – is struggling to figure out, now what happens and where do we go from here,” Ritter said. “Everyone is just trying to find a way to come together. Penn State is such a community with so much pride, and now with two of our leaders having stepped down, I truly think that the riots in part were just students who wanted to feel like a community. They wanted to be together and feel like they were a part of something. And while the vast majority of students did not participate or condone that behavior, I think that’s what caused it.”

Media coverage has greatly escalated the furor, Ritter said, by making the story about Paterno and not Sandusky. (Questions over whether the coach and Spanier should have reported what they knew to police, rather than just up the chain of command as is legally required, are what led to their ousters.) Protesters on Wednesday night were particularly hostile toward journalists on the scene; one photographer was hit with a rock (as was a female student who wound up in the hospital), and the van that the students toppled belonged to a local news station.

“This all just hit them in the face suddenly,” said Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy, executive director of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. “They’re most likely having some very strong mixed emotions.”

But Penn State officials can view the events as a "wonderfully pivotal, teachable moment for students,” Dungy said. If faculty and staff reach out to the students, create forums where students can reflect on what’s happened and what they’ve learned from it and how they’ll use those lessons in the future, this crisis can turn into an opportunity.

“Some will come forward for the coach, but others will be able to come forward talking about the ethics of the situation,” Dungy said. “It’s these kinds of things that help students really learn who they are as citizens.”

Of course, at an institution with such a storied football program as Penn State’s, the resentment may run deep. Paterno was more than a coach – he was a mentor, an idol, “JoPa.” But for student affairs, the task will be helping students reconcile their feelings toward Paterno and their innate sense of moral responsibility, said Larry D. Roper, vice provost for student affairs at Oregon State University.

“They’re thinking in the moment, and not necessarily thinking in the bigger picture,” Roper said. “It’s a horrible situation for anybody to have to resolve.”

Thursday night wasn’t the first time students have reacted this way to powerful news – not even this year. But with all the students reacting to and feeding off each other – some of whom were no doubt under the influence of alcohol – things still got further than Susan Herbst, president of the University of Connecticut, thought they would (at least, from a distance). And she wasn't the only one.

“We get all tied up in this in our heads, and glued to the Internet and trying to figure things out, and I think we kind of do forget that we’ve got tens of thousands of young people who did not know how to puzzle things out. And unfortunately, on a lot of campuses they don’t necessarily turn to us, to faculty, which in my mind is so incredibly important,” Herbst said. Now more than ever, she said, the students likely need the leadership, discussion and reflection that student affairs professionals and faculty can offer. “As grim as it sounds, because we’re in places of learning, it’s got to be made into a moment to learn somehow – as emotionally wrenching as it is.”

 

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