Penn State abuse case shows we must teach empathy, morals, ethics

Our August 13th Times of Trenton guest opinion column on NJ.Com. Original article here: Opinion: Penn State abuse case shows we must teach empathy, morals, ethics |

Jerry Sandusky

The court decided former Penn State Coach Jerry Sandusky was guilty. The Freeh report concluded various top Penn State University officials and the late Coach Joe Paterno had “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.”

Now, the national discussion should focus on what we need to do to return to a society of people who see wrong and try to stop it, to paraphrase Robert F. Kennedy. Instead, we are a nation of bystanders — afraid to stand up, afraid to speak out, afraid to do the right thing or make the right call.

Those in power bank on us to see nothing, say nothing and do nothing. There was no power greater at Penn State than the one that resulted from the unholy alliance of deniability between university leadership and a profitable football program. It is a microcosm of what is wrong with our country.

For all the academics and sports that are taught on college campuses, we need to include more empathy, morals and ethics instruction. Penn State and other schools can take this opportunity to reverse an empathy deficit and espouse both kindness and advocacy. But empathy can take us only halfway to the goal line. The other half of the lesson is that college students/teens need to be taught how to take action, be courageous, intervene and stand up and speak out. Being empathetic is largely ineffective and meaningless to the victim — if we don’t act.

The administrations need to be fixed, too: Individuals need to be trained and prepared for making the right decisions if/when the next situation presents itself.

Penn State President Rodney Erickson said: “We remain committed to our core values.” But values are not enough if they just exist on a wall plaque. The entire university community needs to learn empathy and then be empowered to act. Only then do values become behavior, and kids, in this case, might be spared millions of lifetime moments of agony.

How Many More Youth Suicides Do We Need to Act?

By now you know the tragic story of Tyler Clementi, the college student who committed suicide on the George Washington Bridge to escape humiliation and embarrassment from a videotape of his sexual encounter. Likely the two Rutgers students who broadcasted his private moments on the internet without his consent, wish they hadn’t. But it is too late.

Too late for their brains to evaluate kindness and decency. Too late to teach Molly Wei and Dhurun Ravi how thoughtlessness becomes cruel actions. Too late to convey how reality shows violate the concept of privacy and empathy. Never mind that both perpetrators graduated from one of the top high schools in the nation; never mind that they were raised in wealthy suburban communities.

There is a virus growing in our culture and it is known as predatory behavior or bullying.  Carried by reality shows, violent videogames, and misused social media, it does not differentiate between gated communities, white picket fences or public housing. All it cares about is finding a host to help it thrive.

The hosts are young, developing brains that don’t mature until 23-25 years old. Biological research says that the frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until the early 20s, biasing the adolescent’s action toward immediate over long-term gains.  And yet, we collectively barrage our tweens, teens and young adults with sanctioned images of exclusion, humiliation and violence.

For many kids, social interaction consists of an online post: “like” or a “fan.” Tyler’s site already has 25,000 “likes”, but do they help Tyler? Do these posts prevent future bullying?  Does social media help other kids become strong enough to ‘stand up and speak out’ when they see something wrong? Did any of Molly’s or Dhuran’s friends say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ when they heard what they were up to? Apparently not.

College students today have 40 percent less empathy than people their age did two to three decades ago, according to a new study from the University of Michigan. The analysis indicated that relative to their late-1970s’ counterparts, today’s college students are less likely to make an effort to understand their friends’ perspectives or to feel tenderness or concern for the less fortunate.

“Many people see the current group of college students — sometimes called ‘Generation Me’ — as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history,” observed Sara Konrath, one of the study’s researchers. The study cited increased media exposure and more competitive social environments as possible reasons for the dip in empathy.

Whining about technology won’t help. We must accept that our kids have become desensitized.  The debate over the evils of video games, violence and stupidity in television and movies, or whether or not kids are “sexting”— is not productive. It only delays us from addressing the kinds of behavior that costs lives.

Accept that the ‘horse is already out of the barn’ regarding technology and its ability to spread “entertainment” like wildfire.  Parents, educators and kids need to get the tools and strategies to defend themselves and others from predatory and discriminatory behavior.  That means learning how to recognize it, address it, and protect youth from it before they become suicidal or headlines.

Accept that educators/school administrators cannot solve this problem alone. We as parents, adults in the community, and business leaders are the ones who can do the most good.  Bullying is real and on the rise. Cyber-bullying is escalating.  We are fostering more and more desensitized kids capable of disturbing and harmful behavior.

So what’s the number of kid suicides that will be the tipping point for us?  How close to your family will bullying have to occur for it to become urgent enough for your attention?  How many headlines will it take for us to work harder collectively to improve school and college cultures, making them safer?

By the way, this is the second suicide at Rutgers for harassment and Rutgers is not the only college campus, high school or middle school that needs to make school life safer for all students.  And let’s not forget the recent suicides of Asher Brown, Phoebe Price, Carl Walker Hoover, Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh and all the other kids too numerous to list here. These tragic losses serve as teachable moment suggestions for parents, youth and educators which include:

Watch reality shows with your kids; dissect them and discuss them.

  • Discuss decency, privacy and invasion of privacy.
  • Discuss social media: what’s good about it and what’s not?
  • Examine desensitization: what kind of media numbs us to kindness, civility and respect?
  • Discuss why there is so much humiliation and exclusion shown on TV/internet, often with a “laugh track.”
  • Consider the need for more tolerance museums like the one on campus at The College of New Jersey (perhaps create one at Rutgers?).

Tyler’s parents issued this statement: “….our hope is that our family’s personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity.”  Can you hear Tyler calling us?

When someone’s getting hurt, whose business is it?

On Jan. 28, a 15-year-old female was seen brutally beating another girl in the Seattle bus tunnel. The incident was captured on video by surveillance cameras. As shocking as this vicious attack was, the camera also revealed a different sort of disturbing behavior: unarmed security guards in yellow vests, standing and watching the beating — which continued with kicks to the head and the ribs after the victim was knocked to the ground.

The questions at hand are: How could these security guards stand there and do nothing? Why did they make no physical effort to stop the beating? How far would this attack have had to go before human decency would supersede the “rules of engagement” on which these security guards based their decision not to intervene and not to even attempt to restrain the teenage girl, so the beating would stop?

“On a human level, they certainly should have intervened. Everybody agrees on that,” stated Sgt. John Urquhart from the local sheriff department. “However, their role in the tunnel, what they’re trained to do, what they’re ordered to do, is to observe and report. In other words, not get involved. And that’s really very, very common with civilian security. Unfortunately, the public expects more.”

While one can argue that it is important to follow orders and abide by policies, there is something to be said for humane behavior, which includes empathy and concern for others. The guards acted callously and “just did their jobs.” How many of us could stand there, witness a teenager get punched in the face and ribs and do nothing? If we had been those guards, how many of us, fearing for our jobs, would have followed the company’s rules? Were all of the guards born callous, or were they carefully taught?

Statistics reveal that, with few exceptions, we are largely a society of bystanders. When we encounter psychologically or physically harmful situations, most of us choose to look the other way or wait for someone else to handle it, because of peer pressure, low self-esteem, embarrassment or simply not knowing what to do. Are we capable of redefining and improving our role as pro-social bystanders, a.k.a. “upstanders”?…

Changing bystanders to ‘upstanders

On Oct. 12, 15-year-old Michael Brewer of Deerfield Beach, Fla., was set on fire by five of his peers. The five teens were subsequently arrested for the assault on Michael, which resulted in second-degree burns that covered 80 percent of his body. He is still in the hospital.

Michael”s crime? He was a “snitch.” Michael had owed one of the boys money for a video game. He never paid the money. One of the boys stole Michael’s father’s bicycle to get back at him. Michael reported the theft, and the suspected boy was taken to a detention center. On the day before the burning, the suspect was released from the center, and witnesses reported that one of the five boys yelled, “He’s a snitch!” As a result of Michael’s “snitching,” the five boys doused him in alcohol and used a lighter to set him on fire.

What Michael did used to be called “tattling.” Over the years, it’s been known as “ratting,” “narcing” and, more recently, the mob term for informant (“snitch”) was revived by drug dealers and gangs and brought back into vogue.

Today, providing information to police is a violation of street ethics, punishable not just by intimidation, but sometimes death. This “no-snitching code” is reinforced in rap music and the media, giving American youth the message that not only is it honorable not to report crimes, but that it is OK to retaliate against those who snitch.

What is particularly difficult about the growing acceptance of not reporting criminal activity or helping police investigations is that it creates more bystanders. Bystanders assume a position of not getting involved, often out of fear. It has become a code followed not just by people in the criminal world, but by citizens and our youth, as well….