Local schools take notice of Penn State and Syracuse University scandals

Local colleges and universities take closer looks at campus safety

The Penn State and Syracuse University child sex abuse scandals are creating a growing awareness of campus safety here at home.

In light of the two scandals, State Representatives across the country are expressing a need for changes in child protection laws.

While some schools in our area say federal mandates and laws are one way to keep these tragedies from happening, training and building community awareness also plays a part.

Things have been a little busier around the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus recently.

“Immediately after that, we started getting a few more phone calls about ‘I’m just concerned about this student, thought I should tell you,'” said Paula Knudson, UW-L dean of students.

With the recent scandals, colleges and universities in our area have definitely taken notice.

“We’re not naive that that will never happen,” said Denise Vujnovich, Western Technical College vice president of student services. “We just don’t want it to happen, so we do everything that we can to have a safe learning environment.”

Campuses like UW-L, Western Technical and Winona point out taking early precaution is key.

“Training is absolutely the first step,” said Lori Mikl, the affirmative action officer at Winona State University. “You have to be aware of what your duty is before you can take action.”

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The National Child Protection Training Center based in Winona travels throughout the U.S. to train professionals on the signs of child abuse.

The Center said a number of studies have found most mandated reporters such as teahers, social workers and physicians fail to report the majority of child abuse cases.

The Center also said people know the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong; people just don’t know when they need to report.

“They need to understand that it is suspicion of abuse not that they need to have proof of abuse and I think a lot of people think ‘Well I really need to know for sure that this is happening before I report,'” said Amy Russell, the National Child Protection Training Center deputy director. “That’s not what the law says, it just says suspicion.”

Officials say passing more laws and mandates is only one way to attack the problem. Education also needs to happen.

“Those signs and symptoms, they need to be able to recognize it,” said Russell. “They needs to know how to report, to whom to report, the time frames in which to report all of that is vital to stopping the abuse from continuing on.”

And for schools like UW-L, training professionals on what signs to look for is one thing, building cultural awareness needs to happen, too.

“When I was attending college, you go from college being it’s about independence and that means learning how to take care of yourself,” said Knudson. “I think the message has changed to what do we need to do to take care of our community. “

Representatives of UW-L, Winona and Western Technical say they are constantly monitoring high-profile situations such as these child sex abuse cases or campus shootings, such as Virginia Tech and they’re constantly modifying their training.

The National Child Protection Training Center believes the number of child abuse cases has risen in recent years. They also said because most of the child abuse cases go unreported, it’s hard to determine the exact number.