Wallace Penn State Piece Appears in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Stephen’s Op-Ed regarding the child sex abuse scandal rocking Penn State appears in today’s Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

The Hardest Thing – Lapses and Lessons from the Happy Valley Horror Show

By Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed.

On a campus not accustomed to losing, there are no apparent winners in Happy Valley.  A stunning series of ethical lapses has triggered a lightening-speed set of legal actions, firings, protests, and violence.  But they have also provided five important lessons from one of the best-known institutions of higher education.

First up, winning is not everything.  Helping young men (and women) build the knowledge and moral infrastructure necessary to succeed in life is more important.  And while football in Pennsylvania is close to a religion, there were no ethical underpinnings to the decision-making that marks this sickening scandal.

Public commentary quickly identified the fault line between legal responsibility and human responsibility.  That no one seemed to be looking out for the welfare of children on and around the Penn State campus stands in stark contrast to the stated missions of most academic and athletic programs, including Penn State’s.

Second, and sadly, the boys allegedly molested by Jerry Sandusky are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  According to Prevent Child Abuse America, approximately one in six boys is molested before the age of sixteen.  They point out that boys at highest risk for sexual abuse are those younger than thirteen who are nonwhite, are of low socioeconomic status, and who are not living with their fathers, as were at least some of the boys in this case.

Underreporting of Sex Crimes Against Children

Even so, the US Department of Health and Human Services warns sexual abuse is underreported.  This is likely the case for many reasons, not the least of which are the shame, fear, and humiliation of the victims.

Telltale Signs of Abuse

Broader recognition of the signs of abuse – while difficult – can be a third important outcome of this tragedy.  And here the symptomology ranges greatly, from physical manifestations to social-emotional fallout such as the types highlighted by the Academy of Adolescent and Child Psychiatry:

  • Unusual interest in or avoidance of things of a sexual nature
  • Sleep problems or nightmares
  • Depression or withdrawal
  • Seductiveness
  • Fear that there is something wrong in the genital area
  • Conduct problems
  • Secretiveness
  • Unusual aggressiveness or suicidal behavior

The Power of Positive Youth Mentoring

A fourth – and important – lesson can be found in an appreciation of the positive power of mentoring, even if some who claim to be caring adults have ulterior motives.  For example, mentoring has been shown to enhance school performance, improve relationships with parents and peers, reduce initiation of drug and alcohol use, and decrease incidents of youth violence.

In addition, research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) reveals that young people who identify at least one influential, “natural” mentor in their lives report that they have a higher sense of self and are more likely to take risks that affect them positively. In the same study, more than half (56 percent) of middle and high school students said that not having a mentor would negatively affect them.

Yet, despite clear evidence of the positive effects of mentoring on youth, a startling number of kids (53 percent) say their parents discourage them from participating in organizations or activities where such mentoring might occur, including one in five who specifically cite parental concern for their personal safety when spending time with a mentor.

And that’s discouraging as the Search Institute holds that young people need at least three non-parent adult mentors in their lives to reach their full potential.

What’s a Parent to Do?

In order to avoid just ditching the baby with the bathwater, mom or dad can take some precautions to make sure their child is safe with a mentor:

  • Stay involved.  Know with whom their child is spending time, where they are going, and what they are doing.
  • Get to know their child’s mentors.  Working together will benefit the child and give parents a better sense of his/her safety.
  • Encourage their child’s involvement in organizations that conduct screenings and/or criminal and sexual offender background checks.

A Few Bad Apples

Despite the bad apples in the bunch, positive youth mentors provide a safe place for children and young adults to learn and grow – precisely because they know that the most important – and fifth – lesson coming out of Beaver Stadium is that the kids come first and need to be protected by adults, even when it’s difficult.

In the words of The Fray, “Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.”

Stephen Wallace, associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor.  For more information about CARE visit www.Susqu.edu.  For more information about Stephen, visit www.StephenGrayWallace.com

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