Penn State Abuse Report Urges Stronger Role for HR

News Updates

When Jerry Sandusky was still employed by Penn State as a football coach in 1998 and was accused of child abuse, several men—including President Graham Spanier, Senior Vice President-Finance and Business Gary Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy Curley and Head Football Coach Joe Paterno—concealed the accusation from the university board of trustees, according to a July 12, 2012, report by Louis Freeh, an attorney with Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan LLP, former judge and former director of the FBI.

Someone else was left in the dark, according to former University Police Department Detective Ron Schreffler: HR.

“No referral of the Sandusky incident was made to the Penn State Office of Human Resources (OHR),” the report stated. “Schreffler said such referrals routinely were made in other cases. A senior OHR official recalled no report of the Sandusky incident in 1998, and the OHR files contained no such report. The official thought the Sandusky case was so ‘sensitive’ that it was handled by Schultz alone. The official said no written policy required OHR to be notified by the campus police of incidents involving employees, but it was ‘very rare’ for OHR not to be notified.”

Law enforcement and child protection authorities also were kept in the dark about child abuse allegations, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Corbett, who on Nov. 4, 2011, filed criminal charges against Schultz and Curley for failing to report allegations of child abuse to proper authorities.

Why wasn’t HR in the loop? Because HR functions were too decentralized and removed from the university president, the report suggested.

And why weren’t law enforcement authorities (not university police, who were contacted by a child’s mother) notified? HR was too decentralized, its enforcement policies were too weak and implementation of the policies and procedures in place was spotty, according to the report.

Now Penn State is taking numerous steps to address these shortcomings, including requiring mandatory reporter training and establishing the position of director of university compliance.

Reporter Training

In Policy AD72, Reporting Suspected Child Abuse, a policy that Penn State adopted June 7, 2012, the university notes that “all university employees will be required to complete mandated reporter training annually through the Office of Human Resources, Center for Workplace Learning and Performance. If any university employee willfully fails to report a case of suspected child abuse, it will result in disciplinary action, up to and including, dismissal.”

The policy noted that Pennsylvania law requires the following persons to make a report about suspected child abuse:

  • A person who, in the course of employment comes into contact with children and has reasonable cause to suspect that the child is a victim of child abuse.
  • Specifically named professionals including, but not limited to: any licensed physician, osteopath, medical examiner, coroner, funeral director, dentist, optometrist, chiropractor, podiatrist, intern, registered nurse, licensed practical nurse, hospital personnel engaged in the admission, examination, care or treatment of persons, Christian Science practitioner, member of the clergy, school administrator, school teacher, school nurse, social services worker, daycare center worker or any other child-care or foster care worker, mental health professional, peace officer or law enforcement official.

The policy instructs employees that if they suspect child abuse, they should immediately contact the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare’s Childline, which is staffed 24/7. If the call is not answered, employees should contact the county child welfare agency in the county where the incident occurred. If no one is reached through the Childline or local county child welfare office, the reporter must continue calling until the person reaches an individual to complete the reporting process. And if a child is in imminent danger, the employee should contact police at 911 to obtain immediate protection for the child.

Centralized Compliance

Penn State also will hire a new, full-time Clery Act compliance coordinator, provide Clery Act training for employees, and establish a director of university compliance. (The Clery Act requires institutions of higher education that receive federal funding to disclose information about crime on campus.)

These steps are in response to the Freeh report’s finding that the university has more than 350 policies and procedures, but compliance oversight is “decentralized and uneven.” The report also faulted the university for having no centralized office, officer or committee to oversee institutional compliance with laws, regulations, policies and procedures. “Certain departments monitored their own compliance issues with very limited resources,” the report stated.

In addition, the report found that “although the university has a central human resources department headed by an associate vice president, each school and other large departments (such as intercollegiate athletics) has its own HR staff. Those individual departments sometimes relax or opt out of the standard rules or procedures in implementing university policies and rules.”

The university announced other changes as well, including strengthened background check requirements, including mandatory background checks for any individual 18 or older, paid or unpaid, who is engaged by Penn State in any work capacity. This includes volunteers working with minors, adjunct faculty, consultants and contractors. (Some of Sandusky’s alleged child abuse occurred after he retired from the university in 1999, but still was allowed access to campus facilities and was treated as a professor emeritus.)

The university established an ethics hotline in 2003 to report HR issues. The Office of Internal Audit, which oversees the hotline, is led by an internal audit director who reports to the senior vice president-finance and business, and the chairman of the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Finance, Business and Capital Planning.

Other Recommendations

Other changes recommended by the Freeh Report include:

  • Upgrade the position of the associate vice president for human resources to a vice president position reporting directly to the university president.
  • Evaluate the span of control of the university president and make adjustments as necessary to ensure that the president’s duties are realistic and capable of the president’s oversight and control.
  • Evaluate the span of control and responsibility of the senior vice president-finance and business and make adjustments as necessary to ensure that the senior vice president’s duties are realistic and capable of the vice president’s oversight and control.
  • Separate the university’s office of human resources from the university’s finance and business organization.
  • Assign all HR policy-making responsibilities to the office of human resources and limit the ability of individual departments and campuses to disregard the university’s HR policies and rules.
  • Centralize HR functions, where feasible, such as background checks, hiring, promotions, terminations, onboarding orientation and management training, while recognizing the unique requirements of university divisions and commonwealth campuses and their need for measured autonomy.
  • Require updated background checks for employees, contractors and volunteers at least every five years.
  • Develop a mechanism to provide and track all employee training mandated by state and federal law and university policies.
  • Develop a procedure to ensure that the university immediately retrieves keys and access cards from unauthorized persons.

In a July 12, 2012, statement about the report, Penn State said, “In the weeks ahead, the university will carefully review and consider each of the report’s recommendations.”

Allen Smith, J.D., is manager, workplace law content, for SHRM. To read the original article, please click here.