Friday, November 11, 2011

Four Refections on the Penn State Crisis

There is no time in the present, and the speed and scope of what has transpired in the last 72 hours at Penn State reinforce that statement. In a week, the organization went from celebrating one of it's most anticipated hisotorical moments, the ascension of it's iconic coaching legend into the record books as the all-time winningest, to the unquestionably lowest possible incident for an education institution, the violation of youth whom it is entrusted to protect and teach.

We must remember that as bad as this appears, we have had these kind of events in our American and human past. What separates us in the 21st century from those great tragedies is the network and the speed at which it moves. We can all become a part, if we choose, not only in reading distant news or passive viewing of the live events as they happen, we can participate in the event through our social media tools.

Maria Sciullo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette provides a succinct article on the impact of the internet on the story. Scuillo gets to the heart of the matter quickly:

Maybe, some harrumphed, this was just a case of overreaction? But the detailed report accessible to anyone with a computer, tablet or smartphone told a different story.

The indictment tells all. You can read it yourself. And as Sciullo or Pittsburgh native Dennis Miller said on his radio show, when you read it the doubt disappears.

We will now stare at the car wreck for the next days, months, years. There are some immediate lessons that will not change:

- If you think you have time to gather yourself in a major crisis, you are already doomed. It took the administration at Virginia Tech 48 hours to understand their crisis did not end when the shooter went down. It took the governor threatening to immediately relieve the president of the school to get the message through to open the school's emergency operations center and invoke their crisis plans.

The truth is very few of us have worked for an educational institution that believed these things could happen, much less would happen. And precious few of them will look at what happened elsewhere and become motivated to begin to prepare for the inevitable. Unless you are touched by these type events, you can sleep at night without drills, detailed plans or hierarchies for response.

- If your excuse for the first point is "it won't happen here", let me refer you back to the events of the first decade of the 21st century. Did anyone think airplanes could crash and bring down a 110 story building? Twice? In the same day?

Be honest - who among you could have ever imagined Penn State and Jo Paterno in this type of crisis?

- If you have discovered something so destructive, so heinous, so damaging that your only solution to protect the institution is to at best slow walk the process and more likely just cover it up, the net will get you. Eventually, people will know, and if it really is that big a problem, time will not heal the wounds and allow it to be swept away. The truth will out.

- Last of all, I was reminded by a former student of one of the prime directives I taught and lived by: the Watergate principal. No matter how bad the crime, the coverup is worse.

Arguments will be made - not this week or even this year because the nerves are too raw - that in Happy Valley they were moving through a process, that they intended to do things in good time, that this would be brought to prosecution. To outsiders, it will all look like what it is perceived to be today - a cover up at best, a perverse inverted German soldier defense (I was doing my duty by passing the information up the chain of command; I was not responsible) at worst.

Once again, the axiom is true: even a crime as reprehensible as this - especially in an education setting - the only thing worse than being the perp is being seen as someone who knew and did nothing.

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