Penn State

Penn State listed among universities under investigation for possible Title IX violations

The bell and Old Main on the Penn State campus on Saturday, June 23, 2012.
The bell and Old Main on the Penn State campus on Saturday, June 23, 2012. CDT file

Penn State is among 55 universities and colleges being investigated for possible violations of federal laws over its handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints, according to a list released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education in what it called a move for transparency.

The department told the Centre Daily Times in January that its Office of Civil Rights was investigating Penn State to determine whether the university complied with Title IX, a law that protects people from sex discrimination, by responding “immediately and appropriately” to complaints.

What caught the department’s attention at Penn State was the increase in the number of sex offenses reported to campus authorities, which surged after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse sandal.

Penn State officials said they continue to work with the department on its investigation. A university representative did offer the following statement:

“To further the purposes of Title IX, strengthen Penn State as an institution, and promote and protect the safety of the university community, Penn State continues to work diligently with the Office for Civil Rights to respond to requests for information in the ongoing review.”

The list released Thursday is the first comprehensive look at the institutions that are under similar review. They include several in Pennsylvania — Carnegie Mellon, Temple, Franklin and Marshall College, and Swarthmore College — and other Big 10 schools — Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana.

Florida State and Vanderbilt, universities from which Penn State recently hired its new president and football coach, respectively, also made the list.

“We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights,” Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement. “We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue.”

Officials say they have not determined whether there have been violations of any federal laws.

“I also want to make it clear that a college or university’s appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law,” Lhamon said in the statement.

The department said that making the list public advances a key goal of the Obama administration’s White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to bring more transparency to the federal government’s fight against sexual assaults.

In announcing Penn State was under investigation, the department cited the increase in sex offenses reported and added that 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,” Lhamon said at the time.

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 reported.

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 that 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 that better training after the Sandusky scandal resulted in an increase in reports.

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