URBANA — University of Illinois officials said Thursday they continue to strengthen protections for children on campus following the release of a report slamming Penn State University's top administrators for covering up sex-abuse allegations against former coach Jerry Sandusky.
Top UI officials were still absorbing the 267-page report but reiterated that policies on sexual harassment and abuse emphasize "zero tolerance" and noted that the university has developed a mandatory sexual-harassment training program. Here is the report .
The UI is also considering a university-wide process for approving any programs involving youths to ensure they follow required procedures.
It is also drafting a plan to educate employees about a new state law requiring them to report suspected abuse of minors to the Department of Children and Family Services.
"Universities are entrusted with our nation's youth, and we are committed to a culture that ensures their safety and well-being, as well as the safety and well-being of everyone who works on or visits our campuses," President Robert Easter said.
The scathing report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh said Joe Paterno and other top Penn State officials hushed up child sex-abuse allegations against Sandusky more than a decade ago for fear of bad publicity, allowing Sandusky to prey on other youngsters. The report was commissioned by Penn State trustees.
The report criticized Penn State's lack of transparency and "cultural reverence for the football program" ingrained at all levels. It said the mind-set at the top trickled all the way down to a school janitor who, afraid for his job, opted to not report sex abuse by Sandusky that he witnessed in a school locker room in 2000.
"I do think that it shows the great responsibility that's placed on each of us when we accept positions in a university," said Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs. "It just makes your heart sick, as a parent, as an administrator at a university, as someone who has taught here."
But she also said the two schools are "very, very different places."
The UI Ethics Office has proven in recent years that employees are not afraid to report activities they believe are problematic, Kaler said, referring to recent investigations of former President Michael Hogan's chief of staff, Lisa Troyer, and grade inflation at the law school. The ethics office offers "complete protection" to anyone reporting suspicious activity, she said.
"I think that really does create a culture where people feel safe and empowered to stand up when they see something they think isn't right," Kaler said.
Maureen Parks, associate vice president for human resources, said the tone is set at the top, by trustees and the president and chancellors, and the trust they place in the ethics office to investigate improprieties.
"I will honestly tell you that I am very, very confident that the tone that we have at the University of Illinois is one of intolerance for this kind of behavior," she said.
Parks said that was true under Hogan, too, "on this topic." Hogan resigned under fire in March following disclosures about Troyer and ongoing concerns about his management style.
"I've been at the university for 12-and-a-half years. Really, on this topic, there's never been any doubt in my mind that the university takes these things very, very seriously, and deals with them appropriately," she said.
When the Penn State scandal broke last winter, the UI launched a review of its relevant policies and training programs to see if they were adequate. The task force was also asked to identify potential cases where background checks might be appropriate and areas that merit extra oversight, such as youth camps. Hogan also asked the UI Office of Human Resources to initiate mandatory sexual-harassment training for all UI employees.
The university is also developing procedures to comply with the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act recently signed by Gov. Pat Quinn. Parks hopes that can be implemented at the beginning of 2013.
Parks said the task force has completed its inventory of activities that involve children and will develop expectations for how those programs should be managed, based on the new policies.
That process turned out to be more complex than anticipated, partly because of the sheer number, from summer sports camps or music and band camps to 4-H activities and youth science programs, Parks said. Some also use volunteers or contract with other agencies to run the programs, raising questions about background checks, she noted.
The task force is exploring whether a university-wide process is needed for colleges or other units to get permission to create programs involving children and certify that they are following university procedures.
Brian Walsh, who oversees 75 sports camps run by the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, said camper safety is a priority. The DIA always conducts background checks on employees hired for the sports camps, which draw about 6,000 youths each year, he said. The UI typically hires 45 to 50 people for the camps, and this year the checks were expanded to all full-time DIA employees, including the head coaches, Walsh said.
"Fortunately, we've never had any problems," he said.
Walsh has heard more questions from parents this year about camper safety and supervision.
"Obviously, it's a hot topic right now," he said. "They want to make sure (they know) who is supervising the kids."