08 November 2011

Cultures of Compliance

What, exactly, prevented a Penn State University graduate and grad student, from intervening to stop a crime in 2002, or from calling the police?

When Mike McQueary looked into the showers in Penn State's football team locker room that year, and saw a middle age man having sex with a 10-year-old boy, he chose to do nothing.


And, next question. When young Mr. McQueary told his faculty supervisor about his decision to do nothing the next day, what caused his supervisor, the highest paid public employee in the state of Pennsylvania, to do only the minimum. Actually, it is worse than that. The faculty supervisor not only did the minimum, he promoted the ethically challenged Mr. McQueary to a full time job. 

Kitty Genovese and where she was killed,
while many watched, and no one even called
The Penn State University football locker room showers
And no one in positions of power at Pennsylvania State University bothered to waste a minute of their precious time looking to help the victim of this crime. They were, as sports columnist Jason Whitlock notes, looking after their brand and their profits instead of looking out for children.

But why? Why would all these very educated men, or men and women, be so institutionally compliant that basic human morality was abandoned?

We've asked this question before, about Enron, about the Atlanta Public Schools, about Bank of America, AIG, Goldman-Sachs, the Bush Cabinet of 2002-2003, all places where people watched crimes in progress and did nothing - in sad Kitty Genovese style - but rarely have we had such a classic public illustration of compliance over-ruling basic social instincts as we have in the Penn State Child Sexual Abuse case.

I'm not going to spend too much energy here working on understanding the "criminal mind." I've spent enough time as a police officer trying to grasp the "why" behind truly deviant behaviour. My only guess is that some in any society deeply misread the selfishness limitation line which allows a society to exist. We either learn pretty early that we don't grab for everything we want, or we end up as thieves, rapists, Republicans, Tories, or Wall Street/City executives.

So, even if I could imagine why a guy like Jerry Sanduskey wants to pursue sex with people not mutually interested, I can't quite grasp where his social learning went wrong. But I can look around, I can see that Sanduskey lived in an environment, an environment built by his society, in which older men got to exercise absolute power over boys. He also lived in an environment which encouraged different rules, and different privileges, for different people. And he lived in an environment in which celebrity often appears to trump responsibility. So, nothing in Jerry Sanduskey's adult life was helping him to learn late lessons on living in a society which he had failed to absorb early. In this, he closely mirrors people like John Thane, the ex-Merrill Lynch chief executive. If Sanduskey or Thane missed out on "the rules" as two-year-olds, nothing in either of their environments was going to help them learn.

As for Paterno, well, imagine yourself learning that a 10-year-old was being abused by someone you knew in your - office, workplace, school, shop - and now ask yourself if you would do nothing more than call the next person up the line, and never ask another question? Arrogance? Disinterest? I don't know, but perhaps not the public face your organization desires.

What really interests me is then graduate assistant coach, now wide receivers coach, Mike McQueary. I do wonder, as Philly.com columnist John Baer does, "why a young, strong 6'4" recently former Division I athlete didn't stop the rape of a child in progress"? But I also know - those years as a cop again - that some people are interventionists by nature and others are not...

Yet, the biggest question is, why this young man, trained as a football quarterback, being groomed as a future football coach - a kid steeped in the leadership ethic of sport in education - did not even call the police?

Mike McQueary, man of action in 1996. Six years later, witnessing a major crime,
he did nothing, then went home and asked his dad what to do...

Mike McQueary
Wikipedia Commons
What creates such a powerful interest in loyalty and stability that it completely over-rides the commitment to the best interests of children? And understand, I would not ask this question here if I did not think it had implications far beyond the ethically-challenged land grant university of Pennsylvania.

This was not one of those, "uh, not sure it matters" kind of thing McQueary watched that afternoon in 2002. It wasn't a friend driving five miles an hour over the speed limit, or someone having a few too many drinks, this was - first - one of the "big crimes." In New York City's Police Academy we were told that there were only five crimes for which you could use deadly physical force to "prevent or terminate." The acronym was "Mr.Mrs." - Murder, Robbery, Manslaughter, Rape, (forcible) Sodomy. McQueary observed one of those, and - second - he knew the victim of this crime to be a child.

What, one wonders, would McQueary have to see which might get him to call 9-1-1?

Or, the real question, why did Mike McQueary not call police within this "educational environment" when - and I'm guessing here - he would probably have intervened if he had observed the same scene in another place, say, in a park or library rest room?

I ask, because I often see people in education afraid to intervene, afraid to confront, afraid to report, when something involves people within the system. I spent years hearing about "the blue wall of silence," when I was a cop, but I knew then that, at least a New York City cop, was far more likely to turn in another cop, than lawyers or doctors were willing to turn in their peers. When I became involved in K-12 education, I remember saying, "a cop is far more likely to turn in a fellow bad cop (our term back in the 1980s was a holdover from the very old days of cheap phone calls, you, "dropped a dime" on someone) than a teacher is to do the same." And I thought, hell, cops faced more risk. You knew the person you were turning in had a gun.

We also confronted our peers a lot. I remember a fistfight breaking out in the "4-7" locker room over mistreatment of a prisoner. I remember a bunch of us standing in the street telling a narcotics officer we'd never come back him up again because of the crap he was pulling on people on the street. And, well, woe to anyone, of any rank or title, who messed with a child.

But somehow, in education, we choose "respect," "stability," and "caution," over action and intervention. Is it because a different personality type chooses education? Is it because education chooses different personalities? Is it because we train people, as Mike McQueary was trained, not to doubt? Not to challenge?

In every school I go to, people know if someone is causing harm to kids. But, in almost all of those situations, that person is not challenged, not reported. And if they are reported - counter to the anti-union nonsense floating through the media these days - the reports are made to respected Joe Paternos, who do nothing, because they too are afraid to doubt and challenge.

"We worship corporations and institutions. Our Supreme Court granted them First Amendment rights. The Fourth Estate, the alleged watchdogs of democracy, acts as their mouthpiece," Jason Whitlock wrote yesterday. "There should be no surprise that protecting Joe Paterno, Penn State, Happy Valley and Linebacker U — profit-generating institutions at the core of big-time college athletics’ amateur myth — appears to have taken precedence over the protection of children. It’s the era we live in. Institutions are valued more than human beings."

This isn't just true at Pennsylvania State University, or in their football program, it is true in far too many places. And in far too many places we train young people, like Mike McQueary, in our cultures of compliance, because we worship institutions, and we crave stability, and we place myths above human needs.

Joe Paterno and those above him at Penn State have been revealed for who they are. People who would choose to ignore "a 1998 case involving allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior by Sandusky investigated by campus police, the Centre County district attorney and the Department of Public Welfare," people who would not even look for the child victim of rape, people who would see these crimes as columnist Baer writes, as "collateral damage, I suppose, to maintaining the university's aura."

But we cannot let the questions stop there. We all need to ask ourselves if we are training Mike McQuearys in our schools. And if we are, we need to decide just what we are going to do about that.

- Ira Socol


Steve Johnson @edtechsteve said...

Hey Ira-

Thanks for inviting me to read this post. I always enjoy reading your take on things and am not disappointed here.

As a Penn State alum and one who openly idolizes Joe Paterno, I've been reading everything there is to read about this. It is of course devastating and humiliating to read about. I've had the cherished opportunity to work closely with abused children and I wish I could say I've never read, seen, or heard things as monstrous as what has been contained in these reports. It's just terrible, and every time I'm exposed to information like this it shakes my faith in humanity.

I'm finding that I have too many emotions on all of this to fully express. Anger, pride, sadness, idolatry, embarrassment. I think I'm going to give all of this some time and space. I want to hear the whole story. I want to hear from Joe about what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did or did not do. There are a lot of assumptions floating around about Joe that I think are potentially very unfair. People assume Joe knew about the 1998 incident, they assume he had full details of the 2002 incident, they assume he didn't follow up with the AD and head of UP Police. None of these assumptions are based in fact. So I want to hear Joe's side of this before I call for any kind of resignation. Certainly this tarnishes his legacy, but I'm not sure yet how fair or unfair that is.

As for McQueary, I can't pretend to understand why he sat by at the time or for all these years after. I'm not a psychologist by any means and I don't know how typical or atypical it is for witnesses of horrific crimes to act in this manner. You make a lot of good points about this and I mostly agree. I think loyalty and trust played a large part in it- loyalty to the program and his coaches, trust that the administration would do the right thing... It is very twisted and frankly, angers the hell out of me. I don't believe he told Joe the full story in 2002 and when I play the scene out in my head I get a feel for why he might not have- I can't imagine sitting down with Joe Paterno, 75 years old, a grandfather figure, and going into graphic detail about the incident. But that doesn't for one second excuse sitting back and watching as what he witnessed get swept right under the rug and this psycho is still coming around, using the facilities...how could he face this man and live with himself???

Anyway, I'm going to stop there because really it's too much to think about, I have too many emotions wrapped up in this right now, and I think all involved should step back and let some more information come to light. It's a horrible situation and I'm positive it will leave many folks who were in close contact with Sandusky asking the same questions for the rest of their lives- Could I have known? Should I have known? What could I have done? What should I have done?

Miss Shuganah said...

Taking this out of the context of Penn State...

I have wondered similarly about school nurses who bully parents. I have wondered similarly about school psychologists who place a label on a child with no one contradicting that assessment. These people are particularly dangerous if left unchecked.

I have had many aggressive school nurses attempt to bully me into doing things I didn't want to do. When Kid O was three, a nurse was insisting I take her in for a swallow test. When it came time for Kid O's IEP, I insisted this woman leave the room and Kid O assigned to a different school nurse before I would continue. I was not going to subject my child to a medical test that could harm more so than help.

I had another school nurse deliberately misreport the time of a seizure so that she could have reason to call and ambulance and say to me menacingly over the phone, "are you scared?" And the principal of that school defended her behavior to me. And this was one of several times that this nurse overreached her authority, creating great havoc for me.

Recently I had a nurse call me up about some routine hygiene issues. I asked my husband, who was working from his home office that afternoon, to pick up. When he was being protective of me, she asked if there were any DCFS actions against us. He said, "none of your business," and she said she had ways of finding out. She said, "Do you want to play hardball?"

A few weeks later the principal told me that this nurse is "old school" and he would have a talk with her. So while he wasn't defending her behavior, he wasn't giving me any recourse, either. It was only on Twitter that I found out how to formally complain about school nurses.

And similarly for school psychologists... if one makes a mistake, the mistake gets repeated. No one dares to question the findings of their colleague, who, in the first instance, was the principal's mentor. We attempted to provide evidence contrary to his finding only to have it dismissed out of hand by all in the room.

What I find especially infuriating about what went on at Penn State is that I, as a mother to a special needs child, am assumed guilty of even crimes of sexual abuse while men of power and position remain covered up for. I read this and think, yes, same old double standards as always. Move along. Nothing new to see here. I will always be assumed guilty and needing prove my innocence, and men of rank and privilege will always have that for their shield.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article and so true. I don't however agree that teachers won't turn teachers in. I'm an educator and I've seen it happen on two occasions in the last 10 years.