‘Not Just a Penn State Problem’: Three Years After Sandusky Scandal, PSU Student Shares Powerful Story of Emotional & Mental Abuse
When Penn State University senior Emily Chappell was seven years old, she wrote a book about being a superhero.
Chappell and a make-believe best friend at the time were the main characters. As she recalls, the pair were shaped like eggs, there were capes involved and their superpower was the ability to fly.
Less than a dozen years later, Chappell was not only grounded but scared, scarred and feeling like she wielded almost no control — on a superhero or merely human level.
While in high school, her humanity and a large portion of her late-adolescent innocence were stolen by her 10th grade honors English teacher. Through a series of progressively intimate and domineering acts — which Chappell now identifies as “grooming behavior” — the onetime teacher-mentor left her “lost in a world of abuse.”
As Chappell, a print journalism major at PSU, writes, “My senior year ended with my mental stability slowly deteriorating. … Terrified, confused and sick to my stomach, I didn’t know what else to do. I knew it wasn’t normal or healthy, but just like ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ I fell down the rabbit hole and I couldn’t see the light out. Years of emotional and mental abuse. Years of forcing dependency and knocking down my self-esteem and he had exactly what he wanted: someone so unsure of everything she’d once known, that she could be forced to do almost anything.”
Beyond her parents, a tight circle of friends and a smattering of investigators, Chappell had never shared the full story of her trip down the rabbit hole — until yesterday.
The day after the midterm elections, The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at Penn State, relegated its comprehensive political coverage to inside pages. On the front, in its place, the paper ran a full-page teaser for the 2,300-word story written by Chappell, currently the Collegian’s metro editor. The teaser headline: “Not Just a Penn State Problem: A Personal Look Into the Intricate Realities of Institutional Abuse.”
In the exclusive Q&A below — part of CMM’s esteemed College Media Geeks interview series — Chappell, 21, a native of Pocono Lake, Pa., discusses the column’s conception, her motivations for writing it and the personal and ethical challenges she faced prior to its publication. Daily Collegian editor-in-chief Sam Janesch also kindly weighs in, including explaining the decision-making behind the piece’s appearance on page one.
What compelled you to share your story?
Chappell: This has been something that has stuck with me for four years now. It is something I have battled for a long time. It doesn’t just go away. It’s something that’s just been sitting inside me, waiting to come out. … I’ve been with the Collegian for three years. I was a cops and crime reporter last year, so I was covering the fallout that’s still going on from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case. I’ve been reporting on it and reading about it and I’ve been living it here. I’ve been saying for probably over a year now “I want to write something.” I need people to understand this [sexual abuse or in a larger sense institutional abuse] from a different standpoint than “Penn State is full of pedophiles” or from a standpoint of “Let’s blame the victim.” I wanted to come out and say “This is how this happened to me. This is what it’s like. I’m here. This is how it’s still affecting me.” I just wanted something honest out there. …
Over the summer I was having more nightmares, something I’ve struggled with since it happened. … I sat down and decided “I need to do something about this.” … I sat down one night and wrote for hours, 2,500 words probably. I would write and I would read it and I would write more and I would read it. I tried to think about all of the things I’d been trying to forget for years and pulling them back [into my memory], which was not the easiest thing. I got it all out onto my computer and I sent it to my best friend Sam Janesch, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Collegian. … From there we would bounce it back and forth, like, “What do we want to do with this? When do we want to run it? Is it too long? Is it too short? Does it explain everything?”
Why factored into the decision to feature the piece on the front page, even with midterm election results coming in?
Janesch: We went through many discussions over the last three weeks about placement. Given this community’s deep-rooted interest in the Sandusky case, compared with the general interest of the student body in the midterm elections, we believed the column would have a greater impact on our readers than our election coverage. We still put a ton of effort into our election coverage and had that coverage immediately inside the paper, but we knew the significance of this column and the impact it would have. That was enough reason to make it the prominent piece in today’s coverage.
What motivated you to run your real name with the column?
Chappell: We talked about me writing it anonymously. … I was afraid of what it was going to be if I put my name on it. But ultimately it makes more of an impact if you can put a name to the story. I’m not an anonymous figure. I’m not some random person you will never know. This is me. This is who I am. This is my story. …
There were so many people in high school who didn’t know what was going on or were misreading what was going on. I dealt with rumors after it started to come out and I tried to combat them then. This is my final attempt saying, “This is my life. This is what happened. It’s a major part of who I am. It’s shaped who I am today, for better or for worse.” … Ideally, I want the reader to come away sad and upset and understanding how terrible this is and understanding why we need to talk about it.
The column appeared on the three-year anniversary of the release of the grand jury presentment in the Sandusky sex abuse case, the action that sparked the ongoing scandal. What was the thinking behind running it on that day and connecting it with that case?
Chappell: Over the summer at my internship [with Lancaster Newspapers], I attended a session with Kristen Houser, who is the spokesperson for PCAR, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. It was a discussion on sensitive reporting. … They talked about institutional abuse and how it’s not about age. It didn’t matter that the physical stuff happened when I was 18 and technically an adult. It was about power and someone operating from a position of power. When I read the [Sandusky] grand jury report as a freshman — I’d told myself I wasn’t going to and then in the middle of the night I pulled it up and read it — it just hit me how so much of it was similar [to my situation in high school]. I was not raped. I was not sexually assaulted per se. I wasn’t a child at the time it was happening. So I’m not just like Jerry Sandusky’s victims. But at the same time, the manipulation and control and just the grooming behavior — it’s a pattern in all abuse relationships, child abuse, domestic abuse, sexual abuse. I just wanted people to understand this is why you can never blame someone for it happening or saying someone wanted it.
There was just something about being here when it broke. I remember watching the TV reports [about Sandusky], trying not to watch them. I tried to hide from them. I didn’t want to know what was going on. I tried really hard to pretend it wasn’t happening. Then it exploded and I couldn’t. It was everywhere. And there was so much of it out there it made me think, “This is the same thing [as my situation]. How is this happening again at a place I’ve always wanted to go? It’s everywhere.” That’s the point of the piece. This is not a Penn State problem. This is not a Catholic Church problem. This is not a Boy Scouts problem. This is the world. These people exist. It’s awful. It shouldn’t happen, but it does. And we need to talk about it so we can try to stop it from happening.
Janesch: We’ve been working on this column in one way or another for many months. When Emily and I first started talking about it, we thought it would be a perfect piece to run on the anniversary. We also didn’t want to blow up our paper [Wednesday] rehashing what’s happened in the court cases and aftermath of the grand jury presentment. In planning the paper, we talked about timelines and angles for different stories. But without any major new information in the cases, we decided to focus on one aspect we obviously believe is often forgotten. Running Emily’s piece on the anniversary allowed us to force people to remember the stories of those Sandusky abused, along with the reminder that institutional abuse isn’t an isolated incident by any means.
“This is not a Penn State problem. This is not a Catholic Church problem. This is not a Boy Scouts problem. This is the world. These people exist. It’s awful. It shouldn’t happen, but it does. And we need to talk about it so we can try to stop it from happening.”
Beyond the personal challenges, what were the ethical difficulties involved in writing and publishing the column?
Chappell: We didn’t include [the name of her former high school English teacher], which was in the original draft — for two reasons. One, from a legal standpoint, I never went to court so there’s not as public of a record on this. There is an article from my hometown newspaper that mentions his stepping down for, you know, “personal reasons” after allegations of an inappropriate relationship. So his name is out there, but it’s not out there a lot. Second, we didn’t want to make it about the name. It wasn’t about accusing anyone. We weren’t trying to blow this up and make it scandalous by any means. I just wanted to tell my story.
What’s your day been like since the story’s appearance in print and online?
Chappell: It’s been a really emotional day. I left the office at nearly 1 a.m. [Wednesday] after we were done with election coverage. I went home and fell into my bed and woke up [Wednesday] morning — two hours before I had to be up — to 15 to 20 text messages. The column had been a secret, even on staff. So Sam, our editor, knew. Kelsey Tamborrino, our managing editor, knew. And Kelsie Netzer, the graphics person, knew. But other than that, when we had our wire meeting [Tuesday] to decide what was going in the paper, it was just point-blank “There’s a column on front. We’re not taking questions. You’ll see it tomorrow.”
So it was kind of unveiled as the paper came out. Since that point, I haven’t regretted it for one minute. People have reached out — people from high school I haven’t spoken to in four years and extended family who read it and hadn’t known the story [previously] to friends at the Collegian who didn’t know and even strangers. I’ve gotten a couple of emails, a lot of tweets, all thanking me for telling this. I’m shocked at how far this has gone already. …
My sophomore year I joined the Collegian on a whim. I loved to write. I loved to read. I didn’t think it could hurt. I thought maybe it could be something I did in my spare time. I just fell in love. I fell in love with journalism. I fell in love with the Collegian. The people here, they changed my life. I’ve just seen so many important stories get told. … I’m here to make sure that people who don’t have a voice get a voice. That’s what we do. Today I gave myself a voice. I hope it gives someone else a voice who needs it. … I just want this to be a wake-up call for someone, to know they’re not alone, to know it’s never ever their fault, to know this is the world and it sucks and they’re going to get through this. It’s something I have to tell myself almost every day.