The Other Penn State Cover-Up: Death Threats Against Black Students
Hate mail to black students and a death, all swept away by PSU
As news unravels around the grand jury report revealing charges against former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for raping and sexually molesting underage boys, some former black Penn State students are now painfully reliving a scandal that occurred at their university ten years ago. In 2000, the year a janitor witnessed a boy younger than 13 (“Victim 8” in a grand jury report) “pinned against a wall” while Sandusky performed oral sex on him, black students and football players on Penn State’s campus began receiving hate mail.
The hate mail sent to black students had nothing to do with Sandusky’s proclivities, but the two incidences shared something in common: both were ultimately covered up by the university, even as both chain of events grew worse. Sandusky went on to molest and possibly rape more boys, according to a grand jury report (Sandusky denies foul play), and hate mail against black students became death threats.
Ultimately, a black man’s dead body was found by police near Penn State as one of the death threats said it would. And some black students had to attend their graduation the following May with bulletproof vests on in fear of their life.
[WATCH: The Janitor Who Stepped Forward]
But few know about the death threats because Penn State and Joe Paterno were not willing to allow bad publicity to ruin the university’s image, say some of the black students at the center of the tragic events.
LaKeisha Wolf was president of Penn State’s Black Caucus ten years ago, and she received the lion’s share of life-threatening letters. Today, she watches the news about Sandusky’s rape charges, the firing of Joe Paterno and Penn State president Graham Spanier, and the student riots that ensued, and it takes her right back to her days dealing with the university.
In fact, Wolf and other concerned black students met with Paterno back in 2001 because of information circulating that black football players, like then-quarterback Rashard Casey, had been receiving death threats. Wolf recalls Paterno as almost emotionless.
“He didn’t necessarily blatantly show concern,” says Wolf. “He was just really composed -- kinda non-emotional I would say. It was like he would have had the same amount of energy and response whether we were talking about death threats or what was for lunch. It was just a non-descript kind of demeanor.”
Images of the letters received by Wolf & Lang
Paterno is known for his deadpan deliveries during press conferences after Penn State games, win or lose. But this wasn’t a game. Students were fearful for their lives. That year, Penn State was experiencing an unusual losing season – a big deal in the college franchise that spawned multiple national championships and undefeated seasons under Paterno’s 45-year reign. Much vitriol was aimed at Penn State’s black quarterback – also unusual in Penn State’s mostly white quarterbacked history – Casey, who along with losing games was arrested in the off-season for fighting a white cop, allegedly over the cop’s African American date. Casey was cleared of those charges, but even Paterno admitted that the quarterback remained the target of hate mail.
But Paterno wasn’t so moved to have Penn State confront the hostile climate.
Assata Richards, who was a leader of the Village student movement to increase diversity initiatives at Penn State, was at the 2001 meeting with Wolf and Paterno and today still remembers the cold response he gave them about the death threats.
“We asked him to talk to the players because we were concerned about their safety,” says Richards, “and he said in that meeting that he would never do anything to put the university in a bad light. So we said, ‘Then you are choosing the university over students lives.’”
Wolf was chilled by Paterno’s response also. She says Paterno told them, “I’m only a football coach.”
Says Wolf, “To me that said that even if he had specific knowledge of football players’ or students’ lives in danger that he wouldn’t allow that to risk Penn State’s image being tainted and that is something that has stuck in my mind for the last ten years.”
Today, in the Sandusky case, too many details have been revealed that show Penn State officials acted more to cover up crimes than to report them. Whether that was to protect the university’s image or not will eventually come out in court. But the grand jury report shows that when a grad assistant, who we now know is assistant football coach Mike McQueary, reported in 2002 seeing Sandusky raping a ten-year-old boy (“Victim 2”) in a locker room shower, that officials never reported anything to the police.
McQueary, who’s now on leave from the team, reported the rape to Joe Paterno who then reported it to senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz and now resigned president Graham Spanier. But no one reported to law authorities. Schultz testified that the allegations as heard from McQueary were “not that serious” and that he “had no indication that a crime had occurred.”
These same people – Paterno, Spanier and Schultz – were the same officials involved in the case ten years ago when Wolf was the target of death threats. But Wolf said none of them nor the police ever questioned her about the letters she was receiving. Then one week in April, Daryl Lang, a reporter for Penn State’s Daily Collegian, received a death threat letter aimed at Wolf. It read:
“daryl nigger lover lang, since you love niggers so much, … maybe you can do president wolf, a favor by delivering the enclosed letter to her.”
Not long before that, Wolf received a letter from an anonymous source that said “we are determined to rid this place of this black blight on our community. Those like you have been run off or killed.” The letter told Wolf to “have the authorities search mt nittany near the summit, north slope” for the body of a dead “young black buck.”
A few days later, a the body of a black man was in fact found in the area.
Because Penn State officials wouldn’t do anything to alert the student body, and Paterno seemed careless about threats to his players, Wolf, Richards and other black students took matters into their own hands. On April 21, the day of Penn State’s famous “Blue-White” game, Wolf and 40 other students stormed onto Penn State’s football field just before kickoff to draw attention to the racial hate problems – call it an early "Occupy Penn State" move.
Cops apprehended 14 of them, but 26 made it to the center of the field, locked arms and sat down until police broke them up and carted them away. They were all arrested.
Compare that to last week, where hundreds of students occupied downtown State College (where Penn State is located) and held a riot after Paterno was fired, taking down lamp posts, setting cars on fire and overturning a local news van. When Loop 21 contacted State College police to ask how many were arrested in that melee we were told that they “couldn’t tell us because an investigation was ongoing.”
When Assata Richards looks at the Sandusky news, the university’s cover ups, and the students’ rioting protests she says she’s “not surprised at all.”
News outlets, says Richards, “are reporting and saying things today that they said back then: ‘This sounds like a cover up,’ ‘Why weren’t more people notified?’ ‘Why weren’t parents notified?’ It’s scary for me because all of these institutional leaders are the same ones we remember so well and interacted with.”
As for the riots, says Richards: “It’s so interesting because when I heard about Paterno being fired and how students responded, I’m thinking about when we were rallying around our issues and how we were arrested. We were not slapped on the wrist, but we were in no way doing anything harmful. We never destroyed property, but we were arrested for saying, ‘Hey something is happening, people are being harassed and threatened, and a person was killed.’ For that, we were treated as criminals.”