Penn State focus of federal probe: Department of Ed investigating whether university responded appropriately to sexual assault reports before Sandusky case hit

mdawson@centredaily.comJanuary 25, 2014 

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Penn State has received word from the U.S. Department of Education that the agency is conducting a compliance review of the way the university has handled sexual harassment complaints.

NABIL K. MARK — CDT file photo

The number of sex offenses reported to Penn State police surged after the Jerry Sandusky child abuse charges, and the U.S. Department of Education is now investigating whether the university properly handled complaints in previous years.

The department told the Centre Daily Times it launched an “investigation” last week through its Office for Civil Rights, and federal officials will determine if Penn State complied with Title IX, a law that protects people from sex discrimination, by responding “immediately and appropriately” to complaints.

A Penn State spokeswoman said Saturday the university was informed of a “review” and looked forward to working with the agency.

What caught the department’s attention was the increase in the number of sex offenses reported to campus authorities between 2011 and 2012. The statistics were released by Penn State in annual security reports that are required as part of the federal Clery Act.

In 2012, the university received 56 reports of on-campus sex offenses, according to the data. That’s more than double the 24 reports made in 2011 and 14 times the number reported in 2010, when just four cases were charted.

Sandusky was indicted in November 2011.

The Education Department said the university’s grievance policy also raised civil rights concerns.

“Our initial review of Penn State’s sexual harassment policy, compounded by a dramatic increase in the number of forcible sex offenses occurring on campus as reported by the university itself, raised legal concerns that compelled us to investigate,” said Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights.

Penn State receives federal funding and is subject to Title IX.

The department did not cite the Sandusky case in its announcement, although the university used the Sandusky effect as context when it publicized the 2012 Clery Act report in September. The university had said some of the sex offenses reported in 2012 occurred from the 1970s to 2011.

The university said some of the reports were attributed to crimes by Sandusky, too, and the university also said better training after the Sandusky scandal resulted in an increase in reports.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the university learned of the inquiry via a letter late in the week. The letter said the Office for Civil Rights will conduct a “compliance review,” while the the department told the CDT it was conducting an investigation.

In the letter, the agency said its officials have not yet concluded as to whether there has been a violation of any federal law.

“Penn State is looking forward to working with the Office for Civil Rights on this proactive compliance review in order to further the purposes of Title IX, promote and protect the safety of the Penn State community, and strengthen Penn State as an institution,” Powers said.

The civil rights investigation is the second inquiry by the Department of Education. The criminal charges against Sandusky compelled the department to look into whether the university violated the Clery Act, which requires a timely notification of certain crimes that are alleged to have happened close to a college campus. Some of the charges against Sandusky were based on incidents on campus, including a shower incident in 1998 that the then-university police chief classified as an administrative matter.

Penn State received the preliminary Clery Act report in July, though its contents have been kept confidential. The university has a March deadline to respond to the findings in the preliminary report.

The Clery Act investigation could result in fines if violations were found to have occurred.

The civil rights investigation, though, would not result in monetary damages. Instead, the department would work to negotiate a fix to the discrimination, and anyone who filed a complaint would have the right to sue in federal court.

The investigation comes on the heels of the Obama administration’s announcement last week of the need to reduce sexual assaults on college campuses and to put an end to sexually hostile environments.

The Office for Civil Rights is investigating other Pennsylvania universities, but a spokesman declined to comment or identify those institutions.

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