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Opening Arguments

The kids are all right

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Penn State scandal -- and there so many -- is this reaction by too many students:

Police in riot gear used pepper spray to disperse thousands of protesters chanting "We Are Penn State" early this morning after football coach Joe Paterno and university President Graham Spanier were fired in the wake of a child sex-abuse scandal.

Police acted shortly after midnight after people threw bottles and other objects, tore down a lamppost and overturned a television van near the campus of Pennsylvania State University. Students covered their faces with sweatshirts to shield themselves from the burning and stinging spray, and many moved away as an officer's megaphone blared that they would be breaking the law by remaining. The smell of gasoline leaking from the van hung in the air.

Is there a better example to get across the idea that it's just a game and there are more important things in life? It's a debatable point whether Paterno should still be allowed to coach, as it is whether Pete Rose should go in the hall of fame or Michael Vick should still be playing (several people of my acquaintance won't call Philadelphia anything but "the dog killer team"). But Paterno's moral failing is huge and not debatable. He reported the offense that was reported to him up the chain of command, then did nothing else, even after it was apparent that everybody else was just sitting on the situation. In hindsight, he says now, he wishes he had done more. No doubt so do all the young boys (and their families) who had to deal with Jerry Sandusky after Paterno was informed.

I served for several years on the board of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, including terms as vice president and president. It was something drummed into us over and over again: If you witness any abuse, sexual or otherwise, or have it reported to you, or even if you just suspect something, report it. Not just to your contemporaries or to somebody up the chain of command, but to the proper authorities. This is not just a moral obligation. It's a requirement of the law, and it Indiana it includes everyone, not just those who work with children such as teachers and social workers:

Any individual who has reason to believe that a child is a victim of child abuse or neglect must make a report. In agencies in which there are established reporting protocols, the report may be made to the individual in charge or another designated agent, who also becomes responsible to report or cause a report to be made. This does not relieve individuals who make a report to another staff person of their own obligation to report directly to child protection services or law enforcement unless a report has already been made by the agency liaison. Anonymous reports are accepted. Failure to make a report can be a Class B misdemeanor.

And then follow up, even with those "proper authorities." Call and ask for the status of the case. Don't be afraid to be a pest, and you might even end up a hero.

Granted, this can be tricky territory. There have been several well-publicized cases of individuals being wrongly accused and having their lives ruined by ambitious prosecutors or inept social workers, most especially involving the now notorious false-memory syndrome. But when the safety and well-being of our children are involved, there comes a point where we just have to trust that most authoriteis will do the right thing most of the time. It is often said, sometimes with a heavy dose of sarcasm, that almost anything can be justified when it involves "the children." That doesn't make protecting them any less our obligation.

This is nowhere more true than when we're dealing with at-risk children. Here again, the vast majority of the people so engaged are honestly and diligantly trying to imrpove the lives of those children, but the organizations they staff, such as BB/BS, Scouting and the Y's, also draw predators who are always looking for ways to get close to new victims. Sandusky even started such an agency just to keep his supply fresh, for goodness sake. Such predators have to be uncovered and quickly dispatched, as many times as we can. Otherwise, we do not just accommodate harm to the victims. We risk the good will of the public, without which the agencies cannot accomplish their much needed missions.