Jerry Sandusky Sentence: Penn State Students and Civic Institutions Face Turning Point


On Tuesday morning, one day after Jerry Sandusky released an audio statement proclaiming his innocence on local radio, a Pennsylvania judge sentenced the former Penn State assistant football coach to 30 to 60 years in prison for his sexual abuse of 10 children over the course of 15 years. Although Sandusky's sentencing is likely a significant milestone for the victims, some of whom made statements in court today, the “civic legacy” of the abuse and cover-up at Penn State is still being shaped.

In addition to handling several lawsuits filed by victims (and one assistant coach) against the university, the courts still must deal with assistant coach Mike McQueary and fired vice president Gary Shultz whose actions (detailed in the investigation known as the “Freeh Report”) led to charges of perjury and failing to report child abuse.

Outside of the justice system, students, NCAA officials and journalists are also facing decisions for future victims of abuse which will shape the atmosphere at Penn State going forward.

Cutbacks are the threat at the Patriot-News, the small paper whose early coverage of the Sandusky grand jury investigation served as a guide to news outlets that arrived much later. Like many papers across the country, economic pressures have forced the over 150-year-old daily to shed about 70 staffers and reduce its output to three editions per week.

The economic pressures facing the paper could threaten its ability to fulfill its pivotal “watchdog role.” While this is hardly a unique circumstance in today’s media environment, the absence of “Open Record Laws” and the initial reluctance of the Penn State Community to accept the failings of longtime head coach Joe Paterno are great illustrations of the challenges the paper will continue to face even in its contracted form.

Although Bob Costas' (Emmy-Winning) prime time interview with Jerry Sandusky may have cemented his guilt in the minds of most Americans, it’s widely agreed that the “shoe-leather” reporting of the Patriot-News’ 25-year-old Sara Ganim was instrumental in shaping the public’s understanding of Penn State’s early response to the allegations of abuse by Sandusky and his use of his charity, Second Mile, to groom and abuse his victims.

The then-22-year-old Ganim first received a tip indicating that police were investigating allegations of sex crimes by then-coach Sandusky in 2009. Over the next year and half, she trawled online message boards, sought interviews door-to-door and contacted those close to the still-secret grand jury investigation in search of verifiable information.

By March of 2011, she was able to compile enough information to put together a story. The import of her initial report wasn’t recognized by many other papers. To the contrary, the piece led to a backlash from readers supportive of all things Penn State. But with the backing of her editors, her subsequent reports throughout the year eventually earned the paper a Pulitzer in 2012.

The riots that erupted the night Penn State chose to fire Paterno for his role in the cover-up also served as a catalyst for a student initiative facing a similar turning point. It was around that time, not long after the Sandusky grand jury report was released, that graduate students Stuart Shapiro and Laura March hatched a plan to redirect the campus community’s energy into a creative show of support for the victims.

As it happened, the report became public just a few days before Penn State football’s “White Out,” an event in which fans show up dressed or painted in white to show their support for the team and intimidate their opponent. To Shapiro and March, the unfortunate timing of event seemed to mirror (and give credence to) the accusations that Penn State sought to paper over the very serious issues stemming from Sandusky’s alleged crimes.

After some collaboration via Facebook with Therese Jones, another Penn State alum, the two quickly organized a “Blue Out,” urging the community to show up to the game wearing the color associated with child abuse awareness. They also distributed educational materials at the event. Through the sale of blue ribbons and t-shirts, the students raised over $47,000 for organizations supporting victims of child abuse.

Shapiro and March are scheduled to graduate in 2013, but there’s hope that the Blue Out could become an annual event. Their 2012 effort brought them just shy of $75,000. The money that Shapiro and March raised will be added to the pool that’s already gone towards helping organizations like The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR), put in place abuse prevention programs at Penn State. The students have begun the process of transferring responsibility for the event to a student organization. They’ve even solicited support for a panel examining the roots of the Penn State Scandal to be presented at the music and multimedia festival South by Southwest (SXSW).

The $60 million fine levied against Penn State's endowment by the NCAA will also support abuse prevention programs. But only 25% of the funds will reach Pennsylvania organizations, a figure PCAR feels is way too low. According to PCAR, the task force responsible for managing the endowment  is comprised of university leaders from across the country, but “lacks the voices of victims…survivors… and accomplished experts in sexual abuse prevention.”

The resolution of these issues won’t merit national headlines, but these efforts illustrate the manner in which individuals and organizations far removed from the circumstances of abuse can play a role in ensuring that there is a comprehensive response. Ganim’s reporting helped other victims to come forward, Shapiro and March’s inspired efforts helped to refocus attention on those directly affected by Sandusky’s actions, and PCAR’s programs will help Penn State prevent and respond to on-campus abuse in the future.

Voting has closed for Shapiro and March’s SXSW Panel, but $10 donations can still be made to PCAR by texting PREVENT to 80077, or by purchasing Blueout merchandise here: