Penn State sex abuse scandal prompts OSU to look at its own policies, protocol

2011-12-28T05:00:00Z 2011-12-28T19:11:39Z Penn State sex abuse scandal prompts OSU to look at its own policies, protocolBy CLIFF KIRKPATRICK, Corvallis Gazette-Times Corvallis Gazette Times

The Oregon State athletic department, like many across the nation, was stunned by the child sex abuse scandal that rocked Penn State this fall.

OSU officials took the scandal, in which former Penn State defense coordinator Jerry Sandusky is accused of sexually assaulting eight boys during a 15-year span, as an opportunity to examine its own policies and protocols: How would it react in the face of a similar crisis?

Said Bob De Carolis, OSU's athletic director, about the Penn State situation, which already has led to the resignation of university president Graham Spanier and legendary coach Joe Paterno: "You never heard of that before. That's a first time. There wasn't anything in the AD Book 101 in how to work with that situation."

At OSU, an informal panel of officials from student affairs and other parts of campus, led by vice provost of student affairs Larry Roper, met to review OSU's procedures and policies in that kind of scenario.

"It's a sobering thing to see if something that horrible would happen to Oregon State, and what we would do," said Todd Simmons, assistant vice president for university advancement.

De Carolis was part of those meetings and added his own warning to the athletic department.

"I came from a meeting with our athletic advisory committee and we are looking at a number of things, but haven't made any changes yet," he said. "The Penn State situation brought attention to how to handle youth across the board."

The OSU athletic department must follow guidelines set out by the university for all areas. Athletics works with a number of youths during various sports camps, but other areas of campus deal with more children - the 4-H program handles the most, even more than the large KidSpirit program.

"This has been looked at by the university, not just athletics," De Carolis said. "We are wondering about background checks, how fast and deep you go."

Roper found that OSU's various divisions have different guidelines for background checks and how to handle minors.

"One thing we want to do is come up with a set of standards for all programs," Roper said. "Some search different databases."

One possibility is to review university policies on which databases are searched when university officials run background checks, and mandate which criminal databases are used when.

An example of the differences are if someone has lived in Oregon for seven years or more, some departments run a background check through the state criminal justice database. Relative newcomers to Oregon undergo background checks from both the state and federal criminal databases.

"We are pretty comfortable with the direction we are going," Roper said.

Part of the issue at Penn State is that the alleged illegal acts were witnessed and reported, but no one high on the chain of command did anything.

"What we told the student-athletes and staff, No. 1, was do the right thing," De Carolis said. "If something doesn't feel right you have to tell somebody. Go to a coach or academic counselor. The adults must get it to the right people."

That allegedly didn't happen at Penn State. Perjury charges have been filed against two high-ranking school administrators and a grand jury report suggested Paterno knew of accusations against Sandusky and did not do enough to pursue them.

"A coach can't manage the situation (themself)," De Carolis said. "You need to get it in the hands of the professionals, if that be Oregon State Police. You can't mess around with that. You hope the professionals do the right thing. We try to instill in our people to get it out and get it fixed."

A somewhat similar issue - although not nearly as serious as the Penn State situation - surfaced at OSU when players on the women's basketball team complained about emotional and verbal abuse from former coach LaVonda Wagner. Players and their families brought up issues with the athletic department, but said that they often didn't get a response.

Wagner was eventually fired, but not until after a mass exodus of players. Associate athletic director for athletic communications Steve Fenk described that as an unusual situation - and said OSU learned from it.

"We had an open door policy before that for student-athletes to talk with (administrative) supervisors, and still do," Fenk said. "With that situation, information didn't get to the right people at first, and no one came with anything concrete."

In the wake of the Wagner incident, it's common for players to initiate meetings with OSU administrators. Players bring up issues about how they're being treated in the classroom and by their coaches, Fenk said.

"Did we learn from the the LaVonda situation, yes," Fenk said. "We take that seriously."

OSU athletics has had its share of nationally embarrassing incidents over the years. There was the drunken football player who broke into someone's house in his underwear, urinated on a computer and resisted arrest; the football players who stole a ram that was part of a university study on homosexuality; and baseball players taking target practice with a gun in the city limits and hitting someone's house.

Alcohol consumption was a common theme in all those incidents.

"Honestly, there were a lot of black eyes in college football in general this year," De Carolis said. "Collectively, we'd like to change that. There are a lot of good people and athletes doing things."

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