ShareThis Page

Feds eye sex assaults at Penn State University

| Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

HARRISBURG — The U.S. Department of Education is looking into Penn State University's handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints to see if it had responded appropriately to those reports in the years surrounding the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that engulfed the university.

The federal agency informed Penn State of the investigation in a letter on Thursday, and said in a statement on Sunday that it had concerns after it reviewed Penn State's sexual harassment policy and saw a huge spike in “forcible sex offenses” reported to the federal government by the university. The spike coincided with the Sandusky scandal that broke in 2011.

“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,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said in the statement.

The investigation will look to determine whether complaints were improperly handled, thus keeping the numbers artificially low, before the spike, a department spokesman said.

Colleges and universities are required to report campus crimes to the federal government under a 1990 law known as the Clery Act. In 2012, a report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh in the wake of the Sandusky scandal found that, outside of the campus police department in State College, Penn State officials lacked “awareness and interest” in the Clery Act.

In the Thursday letter to Penn State President Rodney Erickson, Lhamon said her office had reached no conclusion as to whether Penn State had violated federal law. The department said the time frame for the investigation will start with the most current year of data and generally cover a three-year period. Depending on the evidence, the investigation could include a longer period, the department spokesman said.

A Penn State spokeswoman said Sunday that the school is looking forward to working with federal officials.

Penn State's crime data showed 56 forcible sex offenses on its main campus in 2012. That was more than double the number in 2011 and fourteen times the number reported in 2010.

The investigation will have a particular emphasis on complaints of sexual assault, the federal agency said.

If a violation of federal law is found, the school's agreement will be sought to change policies, procedures or training, the Office for Civil Rights said. It said it does not seek or collect monetary damages from institutions, although that would not stop someone from seeking such damages in a civil court case.

In July, Penn State received a preliminary report from the U.S. Department of Education regarding whether its handling of the Sandusky scandal complied with campus crime reporting requirements. Neither the school nor the Department of Education have given details on the findings, and the department said that investigation is ongoing.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.