Blindsided? Penn State trustees ‘barely remembered’ spring briefing on Sandusky.

Dr. Saturday

For the rest of America, the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal erupted suddenly last November, when the Pennsylvania Attorney General dropped the indictment that would would quickly engulf Penn State, from the locker room to the administration building and everywhere in between. For a lot of reporters, lawyers and assorted officials around the university, though, the fallout of the last two-and-a-half months is the culmination of a much longer thread — for some of them, no doubt, unspooling as far back as 2009, when the infestation that eventually led to charges against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was initiated by a high school where he volunteered.

For the embattled Penn State Board of Trustees, the story seems to have begun last spring, during a briefing with then-university president Graham Spanier and a university attorney concerning the ongoing investigation and Penn State's possible role in the case. As several members of the board made clear Wednesday in a lengthy interview with the New York Times — their first since announcing that Spanier and head coach Joe Paterno had been fired on Nov. 9 — the emphasis belongs on the brief:

During a board meeting last May, after Spanier had testified before the grand jury, the board received a short briefing — the trustees estimated it was 5 to 10 minutes — on Sandusky's being under investigation by a grand jury.
The trustees this week said that they were disappointed that Spanier, who was legally allowed to speak about his grand jury testimony, did not brief the board on the nature of the questions by the grand jury about the 2002 episode.

"He should have told us a lot more," Lubert said. "He should have let us know much more of the background. He was able to legally share his testimony and I think that he had an obligation to do that with the board so we could get more engaged with the problem."

The mention of the grand jury investigation by Baldwin and Spanier was so brief that [board chairman John] Surma barely remembered it. No one asked questions.

Again, that was in May, at which point three high-profile campus figures (Spanier, Paterno and athletic director Tim Curley) had all testified before the grand jury in Sandusky's case, and the local media had already been on top of the story for months:

Also by that time, several front-page stories in The [Harrisburg] Patriot-News and on had described two alleged sexual assaults of young boys by Sandusky being investigated by the grand jury — at least one of which was said to have taken place in the Penn State locker room while Sandusky was a Nittany Lions coach. All of the stories were also reported in the Centre Daily Times and the first one was fully rewritten and put on the national news wire by the AP.

The Patriot-News story linked there, from March 31, reported that Sandusky had been accused of "inappropriate contact with [a 15-year-old] over a four-year period, starting when he was 10," and that another boy had "told police in 1998 that Sandusky had showered with him in a locker room of the Lasch Building — home to the football program — during a tour." And yet, more than a month later, no one on the board saw fit to ask a question following a briefing so scant some of them could barely remember it? None of them saw any reason to "get more engaged with the problem" before the problem went national?

Last week, the most unifying sentiment during a series of town hall-style meetings between Penn State alumni and current president Rodney Erickson was frustration over the board's handling of Paterno's exit and the growing consensus that the house-cleaning should include the board itself, too. I have no stake in that tug-of-war, especially since I largely agree with the board's  decision to put Paterno and Spanier out to pasture for their own lack of action. But I am inclined to think that claiming ignorance after being alerted by the highest-ranking official at the university of serious accusations that had already been widely reported in the media probably isn't going to do much to boost their popularity.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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