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One Woman's Account of How Abuse, Corruption and Silence at Penn State Perpetuate a Poisonous Culture

A former Penn State student and instructor says a culture of abuse exists well beyond the football field and the school's problems are systemic.

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This piece has been corrected.

These days, it seems, the downfall of Penn State’s beloved football program makes national headlines every few days. Just as the news cycle exhausted the Sandusky conviction and the Freeh report, on Monday the NCAA announced harsh sanctions against Penn State that are likely to gut the football program for many years to come.

As an education journalist, I have watched Jerry Sandusky’s downfall with a mixture of horror and fascination. But as a graduate school alumna of Penn State, it has been difficult to separate my own experiences as a student and instructor from what I am seeing in the news. Based on my own observations of abuse and misconduct while at Penn State – none of them related to the football program – I have every reason to suspect that the allegations released last November, and the punishments leveled just this week, mark only the beginning of a long and painful fall from grace for the institution as a whole. After all, Sandusky is just one man, but it took a proverbial village to hide three decades of overt abuse.

Mainstream news sites like the  Daily Beast have suggested that we need to start asking how the popularity and wealth of Penn State’s football program may have contributed to silence about Sandusky’s crimes. Others, like Jay Jennings at CNN, have asked whether America’s high-stakes sports culture is to blame. These seem like reasonable questions, given just how much money is attached to the sport. Last year, Penn State football program was valued at $446.9 million, third highest among public schools in the NCAA.*

But in focusing our ire and outrage on sports culture alone, it’s easy to lose sight of broader problems -- like school administration or local context. These elements, too, played a role in creating the culture of abuse, corruption and silence that allowed a man like Jerry Sandusky to operate untouched for so long. But his is not the only case of misused power or abuse at Penn State. In fact, many of these cases have nothing to do with the football team. Since I started writing about education, many former students and staff have contacted me to share details about the various kinds of abuse they say they experienced at Penn State, leading me to believe the problems I witnessed were not one-offs. They were, and remain, systemic.

The Place: Hate Culture

The main campus of Pennsylvania State University is located in State College, PA, a tiny exurb of the aptly named Centre County, the geographical center of Pennsylvania. When I first visited in 2007, I thought the university was nestled in a pleasant enough college town. A place of great natural beauty, State College sits deep in a valley just east of the Allegheny Mountains. It’s a town that seems lovely on the outside. It took some time for me to realize just how oppressive the environment could be.

Central Pennsylvania is often denigrated as “Alabama in Pennsylvania,” largely because of its extremely conservative political landscape. Sure, the residents of State College usually vote for Democrats, as towns that revolve around large universities often do. But Central Pennsylvania as a region is hate group central. It houses the national headquarters of both the Aryan Nation and the Association of Independent Klansmen Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The latter is located in Lemont, just a 10-minute drive from Penn State. Plus, smaller militia and/or neo-Confederate groups are sprinkled throughout the area, and continue sprouting up. People in the region commonly note that State College has the “highest per capita hate group membership” in the United States.