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Penn State student body president says students have refocused scandal on the victims

TJ Bard is 2009 graduate of Greencastle-Antrim High School

November 14, 2011|By JENNIFER FITCH | waynesboro@herald-mail.com
  • TJ Bard, a 2009 graduate of Greencastle-Antrim High School in Greencastle, Pa., is student body president at Penn State University Park's main campus.
Submitted photo

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — “The students have taken back the message.”

In the wake of a child sex-abuse scandal, Penn State University students are the ones who organized a candlelight vigil, a “blue-out” in support of victims and a game-day fundraiser that netted $25,000, according to the student body president.

“Students didn’t understand why the media wasn’t focusing on (criminally charged) Jerry Sandusky, the victims. The students have taken back the message,” said TJ Bard, student body president since March.

Bard, 20, graduated from Greencastle-Antrim High School in 2009. The economics major, who has a minor in business, found himself in a self-described “crash course” in media and leadership last week as the campus reeled from revelations contained in a grand jury report.

Penn State’s former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, is charged with 40 counts related to child sex abuse. The scandal has resulted in criminal charges against two administrators, and the ouster of former university president Graham Spanier and legendary head football coach Joe Paterno.

For more than five days after Sandusky’s arraignment, student leaders had only silence from the university’s administration and board of trustees, Bard said.

“We had really no guidance at all,” he said.

He and 11 other student leaders were planning their response to the scandal when they learned of a 10 p.m. press conference last Wednesday. Because they did not have a television where they were meeting, the group dashed to Bard’s fraternity house to hear reports of Paterno’s firing.

That’s when the riots began.

Bard, a junior, went to the Old Main building and pleaded with a couple hundred students there to go home.

“Unfortunately, it was falling on deaf ears at that point,” he said.

Police in riot gear told him and other student leaders there was nothing they could do, according to Bard.

“I think that broke a lot of our hearts because we felt so helpless,” he said. “We wanted to help the students in some form.”

Their discussions lasted through the night and resulted in a morning address, as well as initial planning for the candlelight vigil and blue-out. The blue-out asked football fans to wear blue for child sex-abuse awareness.

“The group of student leaders thought this was a huge way to bring the attention back on victims,” Bard said of the candlelight vigil.

Friday’s vigil drew an estimated crowd of 10,000 to 15,000. Under the headline “At Penn State candlelight vigil, a search for solace,” Reuters described it as an attempt to “smother the hate.”

Students collected $25,000 at Beaver Stadium on Saturday for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. In partnership with alumni, their new website, http://proudtobeapennstater.com, generated another $340,000 for the organization in its first three days.

In search of normalcy, Bard left the press box during Saturday’s football game against Nebraska to return to the student section. He said students remained in the stadium for 15 to 20 minutes after time ran out on the scoreboard in an effort to come together and restore their sense of community.

“I think students are ready to get back to being Penn Staters. ... We have a lot of pain, a lot of anger, but it pales in comparison to what those victims have felt over the years,” he said.

For his part, Bard has been doing interviews with “Anderson Cooper 360,” “CBS Early Show” and ESPN. It’s been a different time for a student whose responsibilities typically include attending meetings and allocating funds for things like extended bus hours and handbooks.

The relationship between the university’s top brass and students improved dramatically starting Friday, Bard said. He’s met with the board of trustees, interim president and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.

Bard said he has learned transparency and communication are key.

“The students are Penn State,” he said. “In the very beginning, (university officials) lost sight of that.”

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