Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Penn State and the Code of Silence

Sadly, I wasn’t too shocked to learn of how Penn State had egregiously mishandled reports of child sexual abuse.

When it comes to on-campus sexual assaults, universities are very good at sweeping things under the rug. To avoid tarnishing the university brand–and the multi-million dollar endowments that come with it–assault cases tend to be handled internally, and victims are put through a bewildering and often humiliating system which makes other victims reluctant to speak out.

In November 2010, a freshman at St. Mary’s committed suicide nine days after reporting a sexual assault by a Notre Dame football player. In that case, the university had not involved the police and subsequently refused to discuss its handling of the assault. St. Mary’s, for its part, was quick to point out that “no crime occurred on our campus.”

At Drake University in August 2010, a fraternity member sexually assaulted one of his fraternity brothers and was kicked out of the fraternity, but not out of school. These kinds of punishments seem to be the most common–the accused gets kicked out of clubs or suspended from certain activities, but does not get charged with an actual crime or even kicked out of school.

Maintaining the illusion of crime-free, assault-free campuses seems to be priority number one for more than a few universities. Students who do report assaults are sometimes threatened with disciplinary action if they discuss the assaults in public. The system in place for handling assault cases can be baffling and shrouded in secrecy. While cases are under review, accusers may be forced to attend classes with their attackers. Many accusers report pressure from other students to back off, especially if their attackers were popular.

The Center for Public Integrity’s multi-part study on university handling of sexual assault cases paints a fairly grim picture:

“One national study reports that roughly one in five women who attend college will become the victim of a rape or an attempted rape by the time she graduates. But while the vast majority of students who are sexually assaulted remain silent — just over 95 percent, according to a study funded by the research arm of the U.S. Justice Department — those who come forward can encounter mystifying disciplinary proceedings, secretive school administrations, and off-the-record negotiations.”

If there is one silver lining to the horrific events that took place over the last twenty years at Penn State, it’s that maybe, just maybe, people will finally start to realized the depth and power of the university code of silence surrounding sexual assault.

And how utterly fucked up it is to shelter pedophiles and rapists in the name of protecting a brand.

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2 comments on “Penn State and the Code of Silence

  1. Mya
    November 10, 2011

    Hi. I’m so sad to hear about this but the saddest part of all is that I’m not surprised about the news. In Japan too, these kind of cases are swiftly covered up (given that anyone dares to bring up the case) and will go unknowticed until someone commits suicide. It’s infuriating because EVERYBODY knows what’s going on and does nothing, often the victim too, I don’t know why… I keep hoping that each time an incident is brought to light, there are some people who will decide to do the right thing.Very sad :(

  2. gradland
    November 11, 2011

    Agreed Mya–it’s really tragic that universities, which you would think would be some of the *safer* places for students to live and study without fear of assault, are so keen to cover everything up.

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