Inquiry to examine Penn State's handling of sex assaults

DoE to determine if university is in compliance with federal law


Jan. 26--The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights said today it is investigating whether Penn State University's handling of allegations of sexual violence committed by students or staff is in compliance with federal law.

An inquiry under Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on gender in education programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance, will examine university policies and if Penn State responded immediately and appropriately to complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence, with an emphasis on sexual assault complaints. In addition, the office said it will review Penn State's publicly available grievance procedures, which raised possible 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," Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for Civil Rights, said in a prepared statement. The increase was noted between 2010 and 2012 in Clery Act data.

University spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email, "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."

The university was alerted of the review in a Jan. 23 letter. A day earlier, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum creating the White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault.

Initiated by the office, rather than a complaint, the investigation at Penn State is being handled by the civil right's regional office in Philadelphia. The Title IX review is independent of other investigations following the November 2011 indictment of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. He is serving 30 to 60 years in prison, after being found guilty of sexually abusing 10 boys, often on campus.

As early as December 2011, the Women's Law Project and nine other organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a letter with the Office for Civil Rights, requesting a Title IX compliance review of sexual harassment and violence response at Penn State.

The investigation began "because our office of civil rights had the necessary information to act," U.S. Department of Education spokesman Cameron French said in an email.

Since October 2008, the office said it opened 11 investigations with a specific focus on Title IX sexual violence issues at the post-secondary level. The office will not provide specific information on open investigations, Mr. French said, including what among grievance procedures at Penn State raised concern.

The Department of Education is also reviewing the university's compliance with the Clery Act, which requires universities to document campus crime. (The 1990 federal law is named for Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in her dormitory room in 1986.) Penn State kept confidential a preliminary report in July.

The independent Freeh Report found flaws with Penn State's Clery compliance, but the university responded by hiring a manager for Clery Act compliance, Gabriel Gates, in February 2012, establishing a policy for the implementation of the act in October that year and requiring training for campus security authorities, those required to provide Clery data.

"It's probably the single most intensive Clery Act compliance effort taken by any university. That's why you're seeing that level of reporting" of forcible sex offenses at Penn State, said S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative at the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, formed after the Virginia Tech massacre.

A greater number of people reporting forcible sex offenses means far more students were afforded rights under Title IX, said Mr. Carter, a longtime campus safety advocate. He was a finalist for the university's Clery compliance manager.

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