Penn State scandal serves as a wake-up call for Wilkes

Phat Nguyen / Kirstin Cook, News Editor / Editor-in-Chief

Penn State administrators are reflecting on policies and ethical standards, and Wilkes University has followed suit given the revelation of the child sex scandals that have brought athletic and administration procedures under scrutiny.

Coincidental with this incident, Wilkes Human Resources is in the process of approving updated policies that deal with reporting harassment, an approach to avoid issues such as those at PSU.

The board of trustees at PSU fired Joe Paterno Nov. 10 after news broke about the sex scandals against Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coach under Paterno.

The decision came a night after Paterno had chosen to retire at the end of the PSU football season. Sandusky, who is charged with sexually abusing eight children over a 15-year period, through his lawyer has maintained his innocence.

PSU’s Athletic Director Timothy Curley asked to be placed on administrative leave, and Gary Schultz, vice president for finance and business, retired.
Paterno has not been charged with any illegal activity, but the board of trustees fired him mid season due to lack of follow-up efforts.

If a similar event were to occur at Wilkes, football Head Coach Frank Sheptock believes the course of action would have been different due to the strong sense of integrity in which the Wilkes athletics program is grounded.

“Integrity is the most important thing in our opinion,” Sheptock said. “I believe very strongly in the fact that I, or we as a staff, would handle the situation in a way that is the right way to handle it.”

Sheptock believes integrity is the most prominent character issue especially for his players.

“I definitely believe that you have to lead by example, and we say this to the players,integrity trumps loyalty,” Sheptock said.

Sheptock also believes that PSU took the right preliminary steps of reporting questionable actions, but went on to say how Paterno got in trouble for not following up on the issue.

Reporting it to administration, then trying to prevent anything from occurring again.

“I’m sure everyone would have that feeling, until you’re put in that situation – boy, that’s tough,” Sheptock said.

“There’s probably no set policy in place to be honest with you,” Sheptock said. “I’m sure that’s the situation at Penn State too, which maybe led to the situation a little bit.”

Sheptock feels that a procedural outline would not be effective for every situation, and added Wilkes has never had an incident reported without follow-up.

“I can’t say that I have a manual that says ‘well if this occurs, and I tell the administration and X number of time passes and I haven’t heard back’ – not to my knowledge,” Sheptock said.

Adelene Malatesta, athletics director, feels that the Code of Conduct expectations for coaches at Wilkes are fully outlined in many forms.

“It’s clear about our ethics and our responsibility in dealing with students, one another and the surrounding community,” Malatesta said.

She said these standards are included in the Wilkes code of conduct, the staff policy manual and an ethical statement that all employees have to sign annually. Coaches are made aware of expectations at the beginning of their careers at Wilkes, when they read the position description and accept the position.

“Every coach’s position description clearly states there’s a code of behavior, ethics and morality, and that they are expected – whether you’re part-time or full-time – to follow the staff policy manual,” Malatesta said.

Reflecting on Paterno’s involvement in the PSU incident, Malatesta said the issue is less about whether an action is right, but more about whether it is the best action.

“I think perhaps some of us get caught into not being wrong, in terms of reporting to a supervisor, but perhaps doing more to ensure that it’s completely right,” Malatesta said. “I think that’s where (Paterno) is caught.”

Malatesta emphasized the importance of taking the appropriate action toward resolution and closure. She said that in her role, that closure may crest when she refers reports to the appropriate authorities, but that she must act to this extent of her jurisdiction.

In the process of reporting incidents at Wilkes, Malatesta immediately shares information from coaches and athletes with Vice President Paul Adams of Student Affairs, along with local authorities.

The PSU scandal has led Malatesta to consider this reporting process and other areas involving reaction to incidents, and not only in athletics.

“It is probably somewhat of a wake-up-call, or a gut check, for those of us in athletics to be certain — but not just athletics, I think generally speaking,” Malatesta said. “At many, many different levels, people are being impacted by this, and I think will continued to be impacted by this.”

Timely to this examination, an update of the employee policies is in the process of being reviewed and approved.

Joseph Housenick, director of Human Resources, said the updates will highlight the importance of reporting any illegal activity at the university.

“Anything that is against the law should be reported immediately,” Housenick said. “I know that our folks believe that very, very strongly.”

Housenick said the employee policy manual had not been fully updated since 2004.

The revisions started in May of this year, and specifically involved the anti-harassment policy and an outline of reporting procedures.

Housenick sent an email Nov. 10 to all staff members announcing the requirement of all employees to complete mandatory online training on harassment prevention. He said the goal is to make staff members familiar with procedures, such as reporting harassment incidents.

“The most important thing is that employees feel comfortable and they understand the mechanisms in place,” Housenick said.

Housenick said there is a confidential reporting mechanism accessible by phone or online. He urged that all reported situations are different and require investigation and follow-up.

These mechanisms align with what Malatesta considers to be standards for employee conduct. These policies deal with issues that are shared at PSU and Wilkes, despite the major program differences between Division I and Division III schools.

“We’re not multimillion dollar programs,” Malatesta said. “We don’t have contracts at stake, and corporate sponsors … and once you get through all of that I think the problems are all the same in athletics.”

The size of Wilkes directly contributes to the differences of interaction between staff and students compared to PSU.

Malatesta said Wilkes’ athletic program is intimate enough for daily interaction between coaches and students. She also said she communicates with coaches every day in person, by phone and by email.

“I think we’re a small enough institution where there’s issues with the team, or issues that coaches are having, my office is open to them all the time to discuss whatever issues,” Malatesta said.

As a close-knit community, communication between coaches and administration is much more immediate than that of a larger school.

“Our leadership at the university has set up a way to communicate that and then an environment that allows for there to be interaction so you know what’s going on,” Sheptock said. “If I didn’t have satisfaction about what was being done, I would know that, and morally I believe in my heart that I would do the right thing in saying ‘this is not going to happen in our program, and we are not going to be defined by these things.’”

Picking coaches with outstanding character is what Sheptock prides his football program on.

“Who we put around our student athletes, for me, that’s the most important thing when I’m trying to bring people into the program,” Sheptock said. “That’s the quality of your life, of how many people’s lives can you effect from a positive standpoint, because that’s how you’re defined as a person – at least in my opinion.”

One of the people Sheptock brought was in running backs coach Paul Jefferson, who played under Paterno from 2000-04 and has brought maturity to the skills’ position.

“If you talk about up until maybe a week or so ago, the culture of the Penn State program was about professionalism and doing things the right way, and he’s brought those things here.”

Jefferson declined to comment, but Sheptock understands his apprehension.

“He’s very Penn State proud, and this is very difficult for him,” Sheptock said.
Malatesta feels the rest of the country shares this difficulty of witnessing these events unfold.

“Like everyone else watching it, your heart goes out to the people that are going through this.”