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Colleges create child abuse policies after Penn State scandal

Lessons from a Scandal
May 25, 2012

In the wake of the shocking child molestation scandal at Pennsylvania State University, that institution is leading the way in ensuring policies are in place to protect children on campus and prevent similar incidents in the future. And it’s not the only one.

“There are a lot of schools working on policies now, absolutely,” said Ann Franke, president of Wise Results, a consulting firm that advises universities on legal issues. “The summer camp season is upon us and that is focusing new attention on the issue of children on campus, obviously, in the wake of the Penn State problem.”

For the most part, these policies address reporting procedures for suspected child abuse among minors who are visiting campus and are not actually enrolled (though high school students in dual-enrollment programs or similar situations might be covered, depending on the institution). But, perhaps in illustration of the complexity and sensitivity of the issue, some universities have reached much further -- even attempting to cover all students regardless of age, prompting objections from counselors and faculty members.

In approaching this project, Franke said, a number of complicated issues have emerged for colleges: for one thing, the programs that bring children onto campus are diverse, and they are many. From sports teams to science fairs to afternoon art classes, colleges are trying to create a consistent set of expectations for issues such as employee and volunteer screening, sexual abuse identification training, and reporting protocols. And while many colleges and universities sponsor programs for children, many others don't, but rent space to organizations that do.

“Penn State is extraordinarily large and extraordinarily complex. And when we really started to inventory the programs that we actually have on campus that involve minors – I mean, it was staggering,” said Susan Basso, head of human resources at Penn State. “Quite frankly, we started initially benchmarking other institutions, many of whom are our peers, and it was very difficult if not impossible to find good comparators…. so at that point we just really had to take the policy and just start picking it apart.”

At Penn State, which Franke says is the “model” on this front, the resulting policy is far more comprehensive than most. Building on a policy enacted in 1992, the updated version contains three key changes: it requires background checks of anyone overseeing minors; it requires at least two adults to be present in all communication and interaction with minors; and it clarifies who should report suspected sexual abuse (any employee or volunteer who works with children), and how (to both the state child abuse reporting hotline and  campus program director, who will in turn report to university risk management, general counsel and police services).

The policy also requires annual training on reporting procedures for all staff who work with children.

Penn State grappled with some of the same issues that other institutions are facing, Franke said: how to select staff who work with children, whether to appoint one overall coordinator for child protection, and if so, who that would be; who to train and how; what the reporting mechanisms should be; and whether to conduct campus investigations regardless of whether police are looking into an allegation.

“I think like all universities, we were very – the allegations at Penn State got our attention,” said John Applegate, executive vice president for planning and policy at Indiana University at Bloomington. “I think one of the things that was most striking, as you think about this with the allegations at Penn State, was, what was happening was not actually within the context of an official Penn State program….. That gives you a sense of the range of possibility here.”

That’s why Indiana tried to develop more, flexible requirements rather than fewer, one-size-fits-all ones.

In accordance with state law, Indiana’s brand-new policy on programs involving children will require all employees, students and volunteers to report suspected child abuse or neglect to child protective services or local police, regardless of whether they work with children. Further, university employees who suspect something must notify the director of public safety. Like Penn State, Indiana will require background checks – to be repeated at least once every three years – of all staff who work with children.

But Indiana’s new policy is more individualized, in that all programs that involve children must have their own individual policies and procedures addressing different aspects of child safety – for instance, whether and how to train supervisors, or what to do in a weather emergency.

The universitywide policy does not address whether programs should provide any additional training for staff on the topic, which Applegate said would be an overreach.

“One reason we tried to make this as flexible as appropriate was to take into account that we don’t want to unnecessarily add administrative burdens to anybody,” Applegate said. “We do not in this policy try to go beyond the requirement for notifying if somebody has had reason to believe that something has happened…. it would be just an enormous expansion of the requirements, and I think it’s not really necessary or indicated for lots and lots of programs.”

For example, Applegate said, a campus daycare program will require far less action to adhere to the policy than a science fair.

The University System of Maryland, though, is taking a far more blanket-like approach – but not exactly by choice. While a state attorney general’s opinion written two decades ago requires anyone to report any suspected abuse, past or present, that rule was previously applied primarily at the K-12 levels of education.

Not anymore, after the board of regents approved a rule in December that orders universities to abide by the attorney general’s interpretation of the law.

“[The opinion] has always been applicable…. I think what changed is the heightened awareness,” said JoAnn Goedert, associate vice chancellor of the Maryland system. “What the Penn State tragedy brought to everyone’s attention is the extent to which there are others in our campus communities that need to have sort of greater awareness that they have reporting obligations as well. And it’s for that group that this is much more difficult.”

Would a composition instructor have to report a student who writes about past abuse? Would a student have to report a peer who spoke about a similar experience at Take Back the Night? Would it matter if the students in those examples were 18 years or older, and therefore legal adults?

“My sense is that if Maryland isn’t unique,” Goedert said, “we’re among a minority of states that have this requirement.”

One group that would clearly be affected – and is clearly concerned – is counseling professionals. Partly thanks to protests from counselors there and at other system campuses, the policy is still being fleshed out to address tricky questions like the ones posed above. But counselors are still worried the policy could be a deterrent to students seeking help.

Most counselors would not hesitate to report current abuse, but many have doubts about mandatory reporting of abuse that stopped years ago -- if a student seeking counseling is facing no danger.

“The potential chilling effect is to drive people away because they don’t want to be exposed, they don’t want to have their information shared from behind; it almost puts an onus on them to protect themselves even more,” said Jim Spivack, director of the Towson University counseling center. “I don’t think that this kind of policy interpretation is going to be effective at getting people to get treatment about it, and that’s what they need.”

However, both Goedert and Spivack are confident that forthcoming clarification, frequently asked question and procedural scenarios will put university employees more at ease. Then, for the Maryland universities and for others across the country, it will just be a matter of ensuring the policies work.

“These are preventative measures that need to have a long shelf life in institutional record-keeping…. I think it’s easy to overlook that in the rush” to get procedures in place, Franke said. “My hope is that people will get initial programs set up and then they will continue to work on the issue so that in three months they’ll say, ‘Oh, we need record-keeping,’ or ‘Oh, we need to adjust our policies or our training program.’”

“This is a kind of risk that requires sustained attention.”

 

 

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