Following reports of child sexual abuse at Penn State University, IU felt compelled to reevaluate its own policies regarding the protection of children.
Director of Public Safety Jerry Minger said it was obvious IU needed a more consistent policy regarding reporting child abuse, but upon looking into existing programs involving children, he realized just how great the need for a comprehensive policy was.
“Every day I am totally amazed with the number of children our staff, faculty and volunteers come into contact with,” he said. “I never fathomed there were literally
thousands and thousands of children the University interacts with. If anything, the policy increases my comfort level. It’s much more solidified.”
As a result, the University issued the Programs Involving Children policy April 30.
The policy clarifies the laws on reporting child abuse both internally and to Child Protective Services. It requires background checks for all faculty, staff, students and volunteers working with children and requires all programs including children to maintain an up-to-date list of those programs as well as put an emergency plan in place.
While no one has questioned the benefits of the policy, some faculty members said they are concerned their programs cannot coexist with the background check provision.
Some are concerned by the company IU has contracted with to perform the checks, HireRight, Inc. The company’s senior vice president of worldwide sales is a Kelley School of Business graduate.
A few have said the policy seems to be “missing the point.”
Others cannot afford to conduct the checks, which cost approximately $30 apiece, for everyone working with children.
Chief of Staff and Director of Policy Administration Jenny Kincaid said while the background checks are essential, it is the other provisions that will ultimately ensure the safety of children on campus.
John Applegate, vice president for university regional affairs, planning and policy said the new policy addresses the issue of children on campus from an emergency management point of view.
Prior to this, he said, the University had no way of knowing when and where children are on campus in the event of an emergency.
“Children are less able to take care of themselves in an emergency like that,” Applegate said. “We would obviously want to make sure we have taken as many precautions as we could under the circumstances to ensure they stay out of harm’s way.”
Kincaid said it is important to recognize the policy is only an interim. As the University gains experience with its operation, revisions will be issued.
“Our goal is to be as flexible as possible and as helpful as possible to individual units as they develop their plans,” Applegate said.
A revised policy with clarifications and additional information will be released within the next few weeks, Kincaid said, but the background check provision will remain unchanged.
Elimination of programs
Jill Baker, director of admissions and recruitment for the Hutton Honors College, said the new policy caused the school to eliminate its overnight host program.
The program, which generally served about 60 minors annually, matched potential students with honors students for an overnight college visit.
“It’s really sad to have to let the program go,” Baker said. “It was a courtesy that we could extend to guests and could really influence a student’s decision to attend IU. But we hadn’t budgeted for the checks. We just found out at the end of summer.”
While the policy was posted April 30, an email alert wasn’t sent until late August.
The cost of performing background checks on 60 volunteers would be approximately $2,000, an amount Baker said the honors college could not handle without preparation.
Minger said the cost factor was a concern while formulating the policy, and the University has made an object code for the background checks. The object code will help the University identify exactly how much of a financial burden the checks are, and it will allow individual departments to petition the costs.
“But the funding in the University comes from the departments, anyway,” Applegate said. “That is, it’s not a top-down system. So if it were paid for centrally, it would be ultimately be coming from the departments in the end.”
Missing the point
Had former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky submitted to a criminal background check prior to employment, no indicators of his later child abuse crimes would have appeared.
This fact, revealed in a report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, is prompting some faculty and organization leaders on campus to raise complaints.
“If that information had been out there, you would really hate to have not tried to find it,” Applegate said. “Is it possible that there are people who are sex offenders or child molesters who have never been caught or arrested? Sadly, yeah, there are and we know that, but if the person had been convicted of that crime, then we need to know it.”
It was not just the cost that raised a flag for Baker. She said she also believes it slightly misses the point.
“There could be an infinite number of students beyond our host that would interact with these minors,” she said. “A guest would go to a class with a student down the hall, a class they would prefer to see rather than the host’s class. It’s not just the host interacting with a guest. They’re exposed to several different people.”
Baker said to make the policy effective, every student on the host’s floor would need to be checked.
“We couldn’t begin to cover those costs,” she said.
Additionally, she said the visitors were never at risk.
“We’ve never had any incident involving safety,” Baker said. “We love all of our volunteers. A lot of times our volunteers would first come as guests, as prospective students. They would see how much they got out of visiting a student and would want to turn around and do the same for the next few years of visiting students.”
Caty Pilachowski, Daniel Kirkwood chair in astronomy, regularly participates in the annual Physics and Astronomy Open House, an event that typically attracts hundreds of elementary, middle and high school students.
She said the event is at risk for cancelation despite its safe setting.
“I think children at this event have always been pretty safe,” she said. “They’re in a room with lots and lots of people, and it’s not a situation where any kind of inappropriate sexual activities may be taking place. I don’t think children are at risk in this setting, and if they were, I don’t think this policy would be keeping them safer.”
While Baker hopes to reestablish the host program as a day visit and Pilachowski is hopeful the departments can coexist with the policy, both said the circumstances are upsetting.
“It’s a shame that it has come to this,” she said. “But it’s a whole new world now in terms of protecting students and protecting the University’s interests, I guess.”
Concerns with practices
Although the College of Arts and Sciences has agreed to pay all costs associated with the background checks for the Physics and Astronomy Open House, Pilachowski said the departments are having difficulty finding faculty willing to submit to the checks.
While Pilachowski said she has heard of protests to the background checks in general, most faculty members are concerned with the choice of company.
Faculty in the physics and astronomy departments were concerned about releasing personal information, specifically Social Security numbers, to HireRight upon learning it outsources activities to India, Estonia and Russia.
Applegate said the concern is valid, as University Information Technology Services often stresses the importance of online privacy, but he is confident HireRight is a secure company.
“There are very serious laws protecting Social Security numbers, and a company like HireRight and an enterprise like IU takes the protection of Social Security numbers very, very seriously,” he said. “I don’t think it’s relevant where this is done as long as its being done at a very high level of professionalism.”
HireRight assures its customers all sensitive information is safe.
“All server information stays in the U.S., and production of intellectual property and sensitive aspects of software is done in the U.S.,” read a report on outsourcing by HireRight.
But Pilachowski said confidence in HireRight might not be enough to convince faculty to submit.
“I know for a fact that it’s possible to do background checks without Social Security numbers, and I know if they were to choose that route, more people might be willing to participate,” she said.
Pilachowski has searched for supervisors at department meetings, but no one has stepped forward to submit to the checks.
Since the open house is scheduled for Oct. 27, the event can still happen if supervisors volunteer within the next few weeks.
“Right now, we can’t fulfill our mission for public service,” she said. “It also affects our competitiveness for grants. In astronomy, at least, grants require we include some broader impact kind of activities. Often, we do outreach as part or our proposal. The policy is impacting our ability to be competitive.”
While Applegate acknowledged the importance of community outreach, he said it is the choice of the faculty rather than the policy itself that is harmful.
“There’s nothing in the policy, not one thing about it, that prevents any program from existing at this university that I’m aware of,” he said. “Not one. I don’t think it hurts the University because I don’t think it’s the University that’s stopping any programs.”
Kincaid said the alternative to the policy is what’s harmful.
“Consider the things that have happened at Penn State,” she said. “That is what hurts the University.”