Penn State Lessons: Failure to Report Crime Can be Catastrophic

The scandal is indicative of a broader problem with concealment of crimes on K-20 campuses.

The scandal is indicative of a broader problem with concealment of crimes on K-20 campuses.

While I have seen considerable improvement in the field since my high school principal violated Georgia law and covered up a felony aggravated assault when I was attacked with a box cutter on his campus, these extremely troubling criminal acts continue to occur in public school systems, non-public K-12 schools as well as in colleges and universities. Though I do not know what the driving forces in this case were, nor claim to know enough as to where blame should rest, it seems pretty clear that some campus officials—and in the end a fine institution—failed to protect vulnerable children from allegations of sexual exploitation.

The fear of negative publicity is often a primary motivating factor when campus crimes are covered up by those we have entrusted with the safety of our young. Regardless of what influences led to a series of poor choices by a number of key campus personnel in this case, it is clear that the negative publicity that a proper reporting and resulting criminal investigation would have occurred pale in comparison with the deep wounds to the superb reputation that had been earned and enjoyed by Penn State, one of our nation’s finest institutions of higher learning. Though far from the first such tragedy for a campus organization and most likely far from the last that will occur in our nation, this troubling case is an excellent opportunity for K-20 campus leaders to take away some valuable lessons relating to the protection of organizational reputation through a real commitment to the safety of people above short term concern for organizational reputation. 

Related Article: U.S. Dept. of Ed to Investigate Penn State Scandal

Most people can accept and understand that sometimes even heinous crimes can occur in our finest learning settings. The tragic murders of innocent children at an Amish school in the same state is probably the best example of how tragedy can strike even the most peaceful schools in low risk settings for violence. What most Americans won’t tolerate is anything they view as a cover up by people who have the power to help, to protect and to heal those who are their responsibility.

I hold no bitterness against the two teenage boys who brutally raped me when I was a young boy.

I have no anger in my heart for the person who attacked me with a box cutter when I was a high school student.

It has taken more effort to reach a point of forgiveness for my high school principal. Though I know he was basically a good man who cared about kids, he still made a conscious decision to commit a criminal act to conceal a violent crime that took place on his campus. This crime involved a young person who grew up holding educators in high regard. A young person who trusted those in authority. A trust that was broken. It is unacceptable for any campus official to be more concerned with the reputation of a school  building than the safety of the children within its walls. 

Though I understand that there are sometimes intense pressures to maintain a positive public image for our educational institutions, I also understand that people who must make these decisions make a choice to serve. This typically noble and honorable choice goes hand-in-hand with the responsibility to take action to protect others, particularly those who may not be able to protect themselves. Our education leaders must strive to maintain a healthy balance between concern for public image and the need to act to protect people and in the end the reputation of their institution.

I have forgiven my principal for his conduct. I can attest though that the pain resulting from his failure to act honorably to protect me and my classmates hurt far more than the slash of a box cutter.

My heart goes out the victims in this case as well as to the many members of the Penn State community who are also experiencing pain. I hope that all who have suffered may heal with time and the support and care of others.

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About the Author


Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a global non profit campus safety center. During his 30 year campus safety career, Michael has served as a university police officer, corporal, sergeant and lieutenant. He served as a school system police chief for ten years before being appointed the lead expert for the nation's largest state government K-20 school safety center. The author of 25 books on school safety, his work has taken him to Central America, Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and the Middle East. Michael welcomes comments, questions or requests for clarification at [email protected]. Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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