Monday, November 14, 2011

Reaction to Penn State: Don't gut due process in the name of "protecting children"

I won’t belabor the lurid stories about what happened at Penn State.

Of course, police should have been called shortly after the problems became known to the University. But should it be the legal requirement of the first observing witness to call police without going through a chain of command when he witnesses at work?  Is it his responsibility or his employer’s?  Does the issue of “protecting children” change our respect for due process?

Certainly, it there is an emergency, an observing witness should call 911 if police could stop an incident by coming immediately. University police could have been called immediately, too.  And in a world of “see something, say something”, I understand the idea that the witness has a responsibility to report an incident immediately. 

The proper way to handle this in a university, school system, or any employer where children might be present on the premises some time, is to have a chain of command, and a legal officer (attorney) whose duties include calling authorities when circumstances warrant.  A chain of command at Penn State should have existed then, with the result of a call to police by the university quickly, but not necessarily first from the observing witness or even by the head coach, Paterno.  It should have come from the university legal department. 

I think state legislatures should require universities and school systems have in place mechanisms to contact authorities when there is reasonable suspicion of child abuse on the premises.  But there should not be a separate requirement of the immediate witness. 

I think due process is necessary, because in some other situations there could be more ambiguity. Suppose someone finds a web or Facebook posting which he or she interprets as a possible “propensity” on the part of another employee to have inappropriate contact with minors, but no actual evidence of contact.  What should his responsibility (to deal with “pre-crime”, as in “Minority Report”) when the fact pattern is ambiguous and open to interpretation?  You need due process. 

ABC News has an interesting story by Colleen Curry, to the effect that Paterno is was disgracefully fired, whereas two other university employees being investigated for perjury and legal failure to report remain on the payroll, link.

Sunday, Republican governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania said he supported a change in law, to pass this year; but that the head coach had followed all legal requirements at the time, according to his attorney general, Detroit Free Press story

Picture: Penn State, personal visit, September, 2010.

Update: Nov. 18

Check the editorial and opposing view on "Reporting Requirements" in the USA Today, p. 12A, Nov. 18. USA Today supports reporting requirements on everyone and considers the practical risk of false reports or abuse low.  There seems to exist an emerging viewpoint that institutions (since they circle the wagons) and professionals alone can't protect the vulnerable; only individual citizens can.

The debate reminds me that "failure to report" is usually a violation of school Honor Codes. 

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