Officials in Oxford Public Schools are grappling with a difficult question: should they paint over an image of and quote by embattled former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno that is prominent in one of their schools?
A painted figure of Paterno, who was recently fired for allegedly not doing enough to help stop an alleged child sex abuse scandal perpetrated by one of his longtime assistants, is displayed on a gymnasium wall at Great Oak Middle School next to this renowned quote from him: “My best team will be the one that produces the best doctors, lawyers, fathers and citizens, not necessarily the one with the best record. Let’s keep it in context.” The display, directly underneath the scoreboard, is part of the school’s "heroes' wall" project that was painted about 19 years ago, said interim schools Superintendent Jim Connelly.
“As this whole story up at Penn State unfolds, I’m leaning possibly toward the inappropriateness of this being on the wall,” he said, adding that the alleged victims were middle school-aged students. “But there is a process; we will discuss it. I don’t want to be dictatorial about it.”
Connelly will discuss the issue further with the school's Parent Teacher Organization, school Principal Brian Murphy and the Board of Education. Connelly said he’s received calls from about three or four parents who have expressed concern – he said none of them were irate but questioned the appropriateness of it. He said town officials had also received calls.
The scandal at Penn State has dominated national news for several weeks after longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusy was charged with 40 counts of molesting eight boys over a span of 15 years; he has posted bail and is awaiting a preliminary hearing Dec. 13, according to the Huffington Post. Some of the assaults occurred in the school’s football showers, according to a grand jury investigating the matter.
Paterno, the winningest coach in college football and a longtime icon in the sport, was fired by university trustees on Nov. 9. Click here for more on that story. Paterno's name has been taken off the Big 10 football championship trophy. And it has been reported in the mainstream media that a statue of Paterno that greets visitors entering Penn State’s Beaver Stadium is on verge of being torn down, but university officials have denied they will remove it at this point.
However, in Oxford, Conn., a rural town of a little more than 12,000 people about 300 miles from State College, Pa., some residents believe it’s only right to remove any semblance of the coach once known affectionately as "JoePa" from the middle school’s wall.
“I don’t know all of the details about the (Penn State) case, but when I first heard about the allegations, I said to my wife, ‘Am I being anal or shouldn’t we take the quote off the wall? Or am I just causing a big stir?,’” said Oxford resident Steve Cote, whose wife, Amy, was elected to the local school board last month. “If it would cost a couple of bucks in paint to remove it, I say we paint over it.”
Steve Cote, who has a child at the school, said he hasn’t heard much discussion about the issue from other parents. However, the school’s basketball season, when parents are in the gym on a regular basis, has not begun.
If the painting were not removed, Cote said he would question why but would not be mortified. Most students, he said, probably wouldn’t know too much about the Penn State investigation.
“It’s more for the parents,” Cote said. “I’m sure we could replace it with someone else more modern.”
Board of Education Chairwoman Paula Guillet admits she hasn’t followed the Penn State case closely, but she plans to learn more now that it's related to an Oxford school issue.
At this point, she said, "without knowing all of the facts," she doesn’t have a strong opinion about the middle school's display.
“I absolutely think it should be discussed, though,” she said.
For his part, Connelly - who will only be here until the end of December as interim school chief - will continue to look into the history of the heroes display to see how those highlighted were chosen. Others on the walls include past presidents, such as John F. Kennedy, civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, in the gym, past sports heroes such as Joe DiMaggio. Whether Paterno still belongs there remains to be seen.
“We must have a discussion about this situation and all of our heroes on the walls and whether they are still appropriate,” Connelly said.
And if Paterno is removed from the middle school, it will be a lot quieter than his departure from Penn State, Connelly promises.
“If we do take it down, it will not be a huge display,” he said. “We will just quietly paint over it, probably during a school break.”