From his maximum-security prison cell in Pennsylvania, serial child molester Jerry Sandusky is casting a long shadow over Tucson.
Because of him, local children who take part in programs at the University of Arizona can no longer be anywhere alone with an adult — a measure being rolled out at many schools nationwide in response to Sandusky’s crimes.
The UA hosts thousands of children each year in a variety of programs and events.
During sleepover events at dorms, for example, chaperones for space camps or sports camps must now use restrooms on a different floor to prevent one-on-one contact with their charges. Young children who once took private violin lessons from UA music students had to find other teachers after the sessions — held behind closed doors in cramped practice rooms — were suspended.
UA’s interim policy on interactions with children bans all private contact — on or off campus — between minors and authorized adults taking part in university programs.
The measure, which was put in place last fall without consulting those who might be affected, has caused red tape and soul-searching among those on campus involved with children.
“What we’re trying to do is avoid too much privacy,” said Jim Van Arsdel, UA’s senior assistant vice president for student affairs. He’s part of an internal group reviewing and revising the policy before a final version is adopted. The university’s public relations office said some modifications will be made public this week.
Already, the transition has been difficult, Van Arsdel said: “We have a lot of people on this campus who have worked with youth groups for decades who feel very, very strongly about the service they’re providing.”
UA President Ann Weaver Hart also feels strongly about the need to protect minors.
She took the rare step of putting the interim policy in place without prior internal review, even though the UA’s police chief, who’s been with the department more than 30 years, can’t recall the last time the university had a molestation case.
Normal UA practice is to seek feedback before policies are adopted.
“This policy was initiated by President Hart to address a gap in our policies and strongly communicate our obligation to protect children in our care,” Laura Todd Johnson, the UA’s top lawyer, said in an email.
The Penn State scandal, which broke in 2011, hit close to Hart’s former academic home.
At the time, she was president of Temple University in Philadelphia and as such, a contemporary of Penn State’s then-President Graham Spanier.
Sandusky, who was a longtime assistant football coach at Penn State, is serving a minimum 30-year sentence for attacks on 10 boys over 15 years, including one in a Penn State locker room shower. Spanier now faces criminal charges over an alleged cover-up related to the case.
Some provisions in the UA’s interim policy — which is intended both to protect children and to limit the university’s liability in the event of a lawsuit involving harm to a child — mirror those adopted by Penn State in the scandal’s aftermath.
Both ban one-on-one contact, for example — a stronger step than some schools, whose policies say only that such contact “should be avoided.”
The UA’s current rules require at least two adults to be present with a child unless they’re somewhere visible to others.
Some UA events, such as 4-H programs, haven’t seen much impact from the changes because contact between children and adults normally isn’t in private. Others have struggled with the new policy.
UA music professor Donald Hamann who founded the now-suspended program that brought youngsters to campus for music lessons, said the school’s tiny practice rooms have just enough room for one student and one teacher.
“I wonder if anyone was thinking about the people who would have to administer this,” Hamann said of the changes.
Van Arsdel, who oversees the UA’s residence halls, said for now, adults will use restrooms on different floors when minors are around.
Some sleepover programs may be modified to have youngsters sleep as a group in a lounge area, for example, rather than in private rooms.
Though he agrees with the need for change, Van Arsdel also talks wistfully of a more innocent time when a private chat between a young person and a grown-up was not a cause for institutional concern. “Looking back on my own life, there were times when talking with a teacher or professor in some pretty random ways kind of changed my life.”
Even so, he said, “we simply can’t back away from the need to provide a safe environment for kids.”