COLLEGE PARK — When Bowie State University athletic director Anton Goff first heard about the Penn State football child molestation scandal, he shared the same reaction as much of the country: shock and horror.
With a college athletics program in his charge, however, his thought process quickly went deeper.
“I think most of us in athletics kind of felt a little differently because it kind of hit a little closer to home,” Goff said. “A lot of us who are athletics directors, we talk and we all say, ‘Hey, that wouldn’t happen at my place, because I would have got wind of that, I would have tried to handle it differently.’ But you never know in that situation.”
Former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested Nov. 5 on child sexual abuse charges and will stand trial June 5 on 52 criminal counts. He stands accused of abusing 10 children, including some at Penn State’s athletic facilities, over 15 years.
The university’s former athletics director, Tim Curley, and former senior vice president for finance, Gary Schultz, were charged with perjury and failure to report child abuse shortly after Sandusky’s initial arrest.
The scandal sent shock waves through athletic programs across the country, and brought changes in child abuse reporting laws in Alabama, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington. The University System of Maryland, too, has retooled its policy since the scandal broke.
USM, which governs 11 institutions in the state, including Bowie State and the flagship University of Maryland, College Park, added a late item to the agenda of its Dec. 9 system meeting, originally scheduled to discuss the proposed merger of the College Park and Baltimore campuses.
“Added to the agenda of that special meeting … was a new policy, which was put in place as quickly as possible after the revelations at Penn State,” University System of Maryland spokesman Mike Lurie said. “It’s something that the system tried to do in a very rapid fashion. The tragedy at Penn State has had some ripple effects.”
The new Policy on the Reporting of Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect, which was implemented systemwide as soon as it was approved, highlighted existing state and federal laws but included new procedures regarding the reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect.
It orders any employee of a University System of Maryland institution to provide both an oral and written report within 48 hours of witnessing possible child abuse or neglect to the local police department or to a local office of social services. It requires the university president or someone designated by the president to receive such reports. Failure to abide by the reporting policy could result in firing.
“I feel as if awareness has been increased,” said Lisa Johnson, who is in charge of staff training for the new policy at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. “Obviously, recent news events have created a bit of a heightened awareness. But I think that as soon as I started the training, more people have started paying attention. We need to take this matter seriously.”
At Penn State, questions about reporting to the proper authorities by Curley, Schultz and assistant football coach Mike McQueary, who has testified that he witnessed an act of abuse of a child by Sandusky, led to the firing of longtime head coach Joe Paterno and University President Graham Spanier by the university’s Board of Trustees.
Paterno died Jan. 22, just more than two months after being fired. He was 85.
“We want employees to err on the side of reporting. Don’t worry about (it) if you’re not sure,” Johnson said. “They need to know who the go-to person is and their duty to report any suspicion of abuse or neglect.”
“As a university, we just made sure that it was better communicated,” Goff said. “Before, it might have been kind of understood what you needed to do, but there was no formal, ‘Hey, this is exactly what you need to do from point A to point C.'”
While Goff points to the scandal as a wake-up call for the state, other athletics directors said they had confidence in the previous procedures in place.
Coppin State University athletics director Derrick Ramsey said he reminded his staff of the scandal at a staff meeting, but said the changes to the policy were minimal.
“When things happen you have to act quickly,” Ramsey said. “Just act quickly, and make your people aware, which we’ve done, and that’s it. … You can’t be too judgmental. From the outside, we get these pictures. But what really happened? We don’t know.”
No matter what policies and procedures are enacted, those running Maryland’s athletics departments said it is most important that the new policies are emphasized.
“I think that throughout … the University of Maryland system, we’ve got the right procedures in place. I think the education has been properly vetted and put out there,” Goff said. “But it comes down to individuals at the end of the day. That’s the factor you can’t control.”