Did Penn State learn anything from Sandusky scandal? NC woman’s suit raises questions

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Michael Gordon
·5 min read
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The abuser wasn’t a football coach. The victims weren’t dozens of young boys.

But a decade after Penn State University was branded by allegations that it covered up years of abuse by Jerry Sandusky, a North Carolina woman has accused the school of again mishandling a sexual assault committed by a coach.

In a complaint filed in North Carolina’s federal courts on Wednesday, Jennifer Oldham of Durham says she was intimidated and treated with “deliberate indifference” by the school and its employees after she reported being groped by Penn State’s assistant fencing coach during a flight in 2017.

After a university investigation, the coach, George Abashidze, was fired.

But Oldham, the coach of a Durham fencing club, says Penn State failed to discipline longtime head fencing coach Wieslaw “Wes” Glon, whom Oldham accuses of pressuring and intimidating her not to report Abashidze’s assault. Glon also did not notify his university superiors of the incident, the lawsuit alleges.

As a result, the lawsuit contends, Glon and Penn State violated federal Title IX regulations as well as campus guidelines put in place following the Sandusky scandal, in which legendary head football coach Joe Paterno and top university leaders were accused of hiding and failing to stop more than a decade of sexual abuses by the assistant football coach.

Sandusky is serving up to 60 years in prison. Paterno and others lost their jobs. University President Grant Spanier, who resigned, was later convicted of misdemeanor child endangerment, a verdict that was overturned by a federal court last year. The NCAA also fined the school $60 million.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said at the time that the sanctions leveled against the school were designed “to make sure the university establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which (athletics) will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.”

In a statement to the Observer, Durham attorney Kerry Sutton said Oldham’s experience with the school raises questions over whether Penn State has learned from its past.

“Jennifer Oldham was groped by a Penn State coach in 2017. She filed a sexual assault report with Penn’s State’s Title IX office and fully expected that Penn State had learned from past mistakes and would respond to her complaint with compassion and speed,” Sutton said.

“Instead, she got intimidation and deliberate indifference.”

In her complaint, Oldham says she remains ostracized in the male-dominated sport, which has damaged her reputation and coaching career and has set her up for social media harassment and professional shunning.

Her lawsuit accuses the school, Glon, Abashidze and Penn State Title IX coordinator Christopher Harris of violating the federal ban of sexual discrimination on college campuses, civil conspiracy, failure to train/supervise employees on sexual misconduct claims, battery, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other allegations.

Lisa Powers, Penn State’s senior director of news and media relations, said Thursday that the school was working on a response, which The Observer had not received by Friday morning.

Last May, school spokesman Lawrence Lokman confirmed to the Philadelphia Enquirer that the university had investigated Glon’s conduct. But Lokman declined to comment on the probe or whether Glon had been disciplined.

Lokman added that Penn State employees receive training on policies, including a requirement that coaches report harassment-related complaints.

Overnight flight

As with many women who report being sexually assaulted, Oldman knew her attacker, according to her lawsuit.

Both she and Abashidze were coaches in a small, close-knit sport. On Dec. 12, 2017, they were sitting side-by-side – but not traveling together – during a four-hour flight to Chicago from a fencing tournament in Portland, Ore.

According to the lawsuit, the Penn State coach repeatedly demanded sex. He kissed Oldham’s arm, her leg and her cheek, then groped her between her legs.

When she got back to Durham, Oldham says she told her husband as well as a fencing mentor, who later alerted Glon about the incident, the lawsuit claims. A passenger on the flight later reported the incident to SafeSport, a nonprofit focused on ending abuse in sports, particularly those affiliated with the U.S. Olympic Committee.

In February 2018, the Penn State fencing team came to Durham for a tournament at Duke University. While there, Glon and Abashidze arranged to meet with Oldham, according to the lawsuit.

Oldham gave Glon verbal and written accounts of the incident, then asked if he intended to report the incident to the athletic department at Penn State.

“No,” Glon replied, according to the lawsuit.

He then tried to persuade her not to report the matter to SafeSport, saying that she would be embarrassing herself and no one would believe her. Abashidze, whom Glon referred to as “a good guy,” then apologized, the lawsuit says.

Two months later, the lawsuit claims, Glon again pressured Oldman to remain quiet when they met for coffee during an April 2018 tournament in Richmond, Va.

According to the lawsuit, Oldman “suggested to Glon that he had a duty” to report the assault to Penn State.

Glon responded that Abashidze was not “a danger” to Penn State’s co-ed fencing team and that Glon was “watching him closely.”

In the meantime, SafeSport opened an investigation into the incident, found Abashidze responsible for the assault, and suspended him for a year from USA Fencing sanctioned events.

No violation

Penn State learned of the assault for the first time in July 2018, when Oldham’s husband emailed Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour.

Harris, the Title IX administrator, opened an investigation that August.

Six months later, according to the lawsuit, Harris told Oldham that her allegations against Abashidze had been substantiated, but that the coach’s public groping of her had not violated any Penn State policies.

Nontheless, Penn State fired Abashidze last May.

As for Glon, the investigative findings did not mention his failure to report the incident, according to the lawsuit.

In April 2019, Oldham filed a formal Title IX complaint against the veteran head fencing coach. It accused him of sexual harassment and discrimination when he “attempted to intimidate and manipulate” Oldham to not report the assault to Penn State or SafeSport.

According to the lawsuit, Glon also told her she did not know how to take a joke.