Talking to Teens About Paterno, Penn State, and the High Price of Bystanding

Introducing Family Circle contributor and the new Parenting Advice guest blogger Rosalind Wiseman, who will be writing weekly about the issues surrounding parenting teens and tweens.


If there is anything to be learned from this week’s revelations regarding Penn State it is which institutions are most likely to abdicate their fundamental responsibilities and what are the dynamics that stop people from following what so obviously looks like the only moral course of action.

This is a problem I know too well and it’s an important one to discuss with young people. Over the last 15 years that I have worked with schools, I have witnessed many tragedies in which students, teachers, or coaches have abused the most vulnerable members of their communities. From freshmen boys being sexually assaulted in hazing rituals, girls being severely sexually harassed, to teachers having sexual relationships with students. It happens. And while I have worked with many administrators who take action immediately, I have too often also seen people in leadership positions look the other way, isolate and discredit the victim, do the minimum, and justify keeping it “in-house.” Make no mistake: all of those reactions condone the abuse in the eyes of the victim, the bystanders, and the abusers and empower the perpetrator to continue the abuse.

The consequence of all this is not only on the people directly involved. It profoundly impacts the way all young people perceive adults as credible role models and trusted figures. So if any of us really want to contribute to stopping these kind of tragedies from occurring, we must be clear about how it happened and willing to have honest discussions with the teens in our lives.

So how did it happen?

The more an institution links masculinity with being loyal to the group and their superiors, the more likely its members will say little or nothing when they experience or witness abuse.  In this type of culture, speaking out is being disloyal.

When you add the discomfort of revealing homosexual sexual interaction in what is supposed to be an absolutely heterosexual environment, the victims and bystanders can be so ashamed and/or shocked that they describe the abuse in general terms. As in, “something bad happened in the shower.”

It is in this moment, when a victim or witness comes forward to a leader that the leader’s character is truly revealed. Will he protect the victim and immediately take measures to keep him safe? Will he support the witness, recognizing how hard it is to break the code of silence? Or, will he act in such a way that communicates to all under him that he protects the bully?

This is the essence of ethical leadership. You have three choices: Support the victim’s right to be safe, stay “neutral,” – which in reality is siding with the abuser – or overtly back up the abuser. The more unquestioned public power the leader has, the more likely the leader will back up the abuser and sacrifice the vulnerable to maintain the institution’s appearance of greatness.  Consider also that while school traditions and “institutions” can be a positive force on campus, if there isn’t a constant examination of how people in positions of power within those traditions can abuse it, it’s only a matter of time before an abusive leader exploits the willing blindness of those around him.

We see such blindness in those Penn State students who chose to demonstrate--– or riot-– in support of the coach last Wednesday night. This reminded me of a common high school reaction when a high social-status student is expelled for hazing or harassment. It is common for his peers to dismiss or rationalize the student’s behavior and do whatever they can to undermine the administrators who are holding the expelled student accountable. They can vandalize the school, wear black arms bands, get their easily-manipulated parents to back them-–all to punish the school for “overreacting” and tarnishing the punished student’s reputation.

We know the protesters loved “JoePa” and think the punishment is too harsh.  We know they are furious that his legacy will be forever tarnished. This is just like those high school protesters. By holding Paterno and others like him accountable you acknowledge the reality that in the moment when it really mattered, the leaders you feel so much pride in and even tie your self-identity to acted in ways that were entirely hypocritical to everything they purported to stand for. Instead, it’s much easier to lash out and refuse to admit what actually occurred. But really, although it is sad that someone who worked for almost 50 years coaching football will not end his career with the dignity of being in attendance for his last home game, that is nothing compared to the victims whose dignity was literally stripped from them as they were sexually assaulted.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the Penn State tragedy is that for many of us it is the first time we’ve seen leader who did the bare minimum pay the price for his inaction. Joe Paterno has paid that price at the highest, most public level.   Let us hope others will learn from this example.

But how? How do we make a difference out of this horrible thing?

Sit down with your teens and ask them what they think about these adults betraying kids. Ask them what they think the issues I have raised above. Our kids needs relationships with adults that they can depend on. Who know with 100% certainty that there is at least one adult in their lives who they know is ethical and morally sound. And while it may be uncomfortable to have these discussion with them, it is actually the very act of reaching out and showing that you are willing to talk about this betrayal that makes the biggest difference in the lives of the young people you care about.