Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal: 10 Spin-Off Story Ideas for Your Student Newspaper

The Daily Collegian and Onward State at Penn State continue to cover and provide commentary on almost every angle of the sex abuse scandal and its related football fallout and administrative shake-up.

Their hard-nosed, on-point, wide-ranging editorial slates should serve as inspirations– and foundations for related story ideas for your own student news outlet.  Below is a list of 10 potentially fruitful spin-off features.

1) Transfer of Morals.  In the headline, a current Onward State story describes itself as a “Plea to All Penn Staters.”  It is begging students, in the scandal’s wake, “Please Don’t Transfer.”  In a related sense, the most viral tweet after the scandal broke was from a prized PSU football recruit hinting he may change his mind about becoming a Nittany Lion.  The tweet: “Um psu might be a no no for me ewwww.”  Are there any moral equivalents among students or athletic recruits at your school, related to past campus incidents or current controversies?  Are pockets of current or prospective students fed up about an issue of moral relevance, instead of tuition hikes, cafeteria food, class quality, and dorm trouble?  And how much does a school’s “moral reputation” (maybe related to its party culture, religious affiliation or political leanings) impact student enrollment decisions?

2) Campus Crime Reporting.  A Chronicle of Higher Education report recently noted, “In the wake of the scandal over child sex-abuse allegations at Pennsylvania State University, colleges across the country are reviewing their policies regarding what their employees are required to do when they witness or receive information about suspected abuse of children.”  What are your school’s regulations for reporting crime or other suspicious activity in general, whether it involves children or not?  What are the rules for RAs and other student leaders specifically?  And how have people actually responded to criminal behavior they have come across in the past?  In a related sense, are your campus emergency phones ever used for reporting actual crimes or other emergencies?  And how far are campus security officers allowed to go in investigating and apprehending criminal suspects?

3) Retired Staff Access.  One eye-catching detail reported amid the scandal’s initial hysteria was the fact that alleged abuser and former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had “remained a presence around Penn State.“  He had even been spotted in a PSU weight room only a week before charges against him were filed.  He has not officially worked at the university since 1999.  The related questions for a report at your school: What access are retired officials and professors emiriti granted on campus?  How often do they take part in meetings, trips, and other official school business?  And are any still on the school payroll?

4) Criminal History.  Until recently of course, Sandusky had allegedly engaged in despicable activity for years without prosecution and criminal punishment.  But what about those who have been caught and convicted of wrongdoing in the past and are now applying to attend or work at your school?  Specifically, what is involved in the vetting process for new faculty and staff hires?  And what are the guidelines for determining admittance for student applicants with a criminal history?

5) Crisis Action Plan.  Penn State was roundly, and rightfully, criticized in the scandal’s immediate aftermath for a bumbling PR response.  Is there a crisis communication plan or ready-to-roll crisis task-force in place at your school?  Five years ago, the idea might have seemed ludicrous.  Then, sadly, the Virginia Tech shootings occurred– prompting discussions about related plans at colleges and universities nationwide.  What scenarios have officials at your school drawn up responses for, and which ones will administrators admit the school is not equipped to handle if they happened today?

6) Child Sexual Assault Survivors, Grown Up.  Amid the current media madness, Sandusky’s alleged child victims far too often have been overshadowed by all-things Paterno and other angles of the story.  One can only imagine the emotional and mental struggles they have endured.  In a new ESPN column, legendary sportswriter Rick Reilly shares, “For the last seven days, my inbox has been full of horror and hope– personal stories of childhood sexual abuse.”

Adults or those close to it who have survived such abuse and want to inform and educate others are perhaps braver than we will ever know.  Are there any student or staff survivors at your school willing to talk about their experiences and subsequent life impact?  As Reilly notes, part of their motivation is letting fellow survivors know: “Help is out there.”  In addition, it is a measure of personal healing.  As a survivor tells the Daily Collegian, “If you spend all this time and energy trying to keep a secret in place, at some time you are going to take measures to shut your brain off or quiet your brain.  You don’t live a full life.”

7) Emergency Response.  When the trustees fired Paterno, PSU students rioted.  For one evening, chaos reigned in State College, Pa.  How were non-rioting students notified of the potential dangers of heading outside?  What is the response system in place at your school to inform everyone of manmade or natural disasters?  Who makes the call on when to inform the campus community about a potential threat?  And what is the ratio of alert messages to actual emergencies?

8) In the Board We Trust.  The Board of Trustees at Penn State has surged into national prominence within the last week and a half, acting as the main body involved in the firing of individuals like the PSU president and Paterno and determining the future direction of the school.  Their fellow trustees nationwide often have a monumental impact on schools’ big pictures and budget planning.  Yet, trustees tend to remain out of the spotlight of student and local media.  Questions we all should be asking at present: Who serves on your school’s trustees board?  How are they selected?  And what is their meeting and decision-making process?

9) Brand Management.  A number of high-profile companies that advertise with or sponsor Penn State in some way are disassociating themselves from what is now a tarnished Happy Valley brand.  For example, as a Wall Street Journal story confirmed, “About a half-dozen advertisers have pulled commercials from ESPN’s broadcasts of coming Pennsylvania State University football games.”  An Onward State story notes that students are even concerned their own professional futures might be stymied because businesses may be nervous about hiring someone with a PSU degree.

Related questions for a spin-off report: What companies are aligned with your school, and in what ways?  What demands do the companies make in exchange for an advertising or sponsorship arrangement?  And what are the responsibilities of the staff at your school who are charged with overall brand management or management of the brand in a specific arena like social media?  In a related sense, has your school ever disassociated itself from a company or individual for ethical or moral reasons, such as removing a name from a dorm, dropping a sponsor from a campus event or returning a check from a high-level donor?  And talk to corporate recruiters: What is your school’s reputation among those looking to hire?

10) Presidential Roles.  Along with being ousted as PSU president, Graham Spanier has resigned or been booted from various other organizations on which he had held directorships or similar leadership positions– most prominently U.S. Steel and college football’s Bowl Championship Series.  What outside boards and committees do the president and other high-ranking administrators at your school serve on?  Who approves the affiliations?  And how are conflicts of interest handled?

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  1. […] of the many excellent editorial decisions being made by Collegian staffers as they continue their comprehensive coverage of the […]