No Time for Scholarship

March 29th, 2013 5:37 pm

With due apologies to Mac Hyman, creator of “No Time for Sergeants,” I think we already know everything we need to in order to address the horrors perpetrated by one mass murderer in Aurora, Colorado as well as the complicity in sexual abuse at Penn State on the part of so many people.

I teach Criminology. So I may be forgiven if my first reaction was to try to understand, and to apply the concepts of “anomie” theory (Durkheim) to the shooter, to speculate whether the sexual predator at Penn State had himself been molested as a child, and to consider “differential association” (Sutherland) as an explanation for the inaction at all levels in the face of years-long child abuse.

But as I was walking my grandchildren to school, it occurred to me that we really already know what is important to know; yet as a society we continue to fail to apply what we know, i.e. how to prevent these depredations, regardless of the cause.

The geniuses who wrote our Constitution recognized the danger of centralizing power without checks and balances on that power. Paterno reigned like a king – benevolent, yes; generous, yes. . . but no one dares to challenge a king. The janitor who warned his co-worker to remain silent, the board members who nominally had sway over the athletic department, the other coaches who knew what was going on, all had one thing in common: a firm belief that any complaint against Paterno’s crony would be counterproductive, harming only themselves.

There is no question that the shooter in Colorado (this article was written before the outrage perpetrated against peaceful American Sikhs at worship but applies with full force to that incident as well) was a known commodity to at least some people in his community: an outlier with bizarre and anti-social attitudes and behavior. Did any family member, friend, teacher, etc. take any steps to either try to help or alert authorities to this ticking time bomb?

I readily confess that this is a tougher nut to crack than Penn State: the breakdown of all levels of community in America has many root causes, and without that sense of community it may be a bridge too far to expect either the necessary warning or the ability to respond to such a warning. Nevertheless, what I am about to propose as a means of preventing the next Penn State can be applied piecemeal to separate elements of what used to be a community, e.g. a school system, the local medical association, local law enforcement, church groups.

Regarding other colleges and universities, the first step is to categorically reject the notion “it can’t happen here.” The likelihood is that it IS happening. “It” may not be child abuse, it may be deadly fraternity hazing, date rape, or any other form of power gone unchecked and unreported. As part of this first step, a “social ethics audit” conducted by a qualified and independent (i.e. outside) team is essential to identify vulnerabilities.

The next step is a structured dialogue among all levels as to what underlying values are shared, and what protections exist in fact, not just on paper, for anyone who steps up to alert authority that the values are being violated. This really is easier said than done, but it is eminently do-able, and best industry practices are replete with success stories. There is simply no reason these lessons cannot be applied on campus (or in any organization such as the ones identified earlier).

Finally, repeated follow-up to ensure that this value system remains in place, and that the organization’s commitment is real and rewarding, not punitive toward those who come forward, and publicizing what has taken place, may not guarantee that bad things won’t happen, but will certainly diminish the chances and leave no room for repetition.

There are many organizations which can provide this service. I work for ETHOS, LLC. I was trained at the Josephson Institute, and worked with the Ethics Resource Center, which are also fine organizations with talented and committed people. There is no excuse to avoid confronting these issues. The small investment of time and money pales by comparison to the consequences of doing nothing.