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U.S. Department of Education Investigating Sexual Assault Reports at Penn State

The Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education is looking into how Penn State used to handle allegations of sexual violence, the agency announced yesterday. The university’s past behavior began to be questioned when the number of sex offenses reported to Penn State’s police force surged after Jerry Sandusky was charged with child sexual abuse.

The investigation will specifically focus on determining if Penn State complied with Title IX, a law that prohibits gender discrimination. This probe means federal officials will look at if the university responded immediately and appropriately to sexually-related complaints.

“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, assistant secretary for Civil Rights.

The department noticed a significant jump in the number of complaints from 2010 to 2012. Four on-campus sexual offenses were reported to campus police in 2010. The following year, six times more complaints were received: 24 reports. Fifty-six reports of sexual offenses were received in 2012, which is 14 times more than in 2010.

“At 56, I believe that would be one of the highest numbers in the entire country — that’s one of the highest numbers I’ve ever seen,” S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Carter said he believes more people reporting forcible sex offenses means more students were afforded rights under Title IX.

To provide context about the recent spike, Penn State said that some of the sex offenses reported in 2012 occurred from the 1970s to 2011. The university also noted the mandatory training on reporting sexual crimes could have led to the increase. Penn State is framing this as a “proactive compliance review” instead of an investigation.

“Penn State received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights advising that it is conducting a proactive compliance review, which will examine the University’s handling of complaints of sexual harassment, including sexual violence, to determine if Penn State has responded appropriately, with a particular emphasis on complaints of sexual assault,” Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said. “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.”

This Title IX review is independent of the Department of Education’s investigation of Penn State’s Clery Act compliance that began in November 2011. The Clery Act requires higher education institutions to disclose information on criminal acts throughout campuses, including but not limited to sexual assault, murder, and hate crimes. A preliminary report was given to Penn State in July, although the information has remained confidential.

About the Author

Jessica Tully

Jessica Tully is a first-year law student at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law. She graduated in May 2014 with degrees in journalism and political science.

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