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Feds Investigating Penn State for Possible Civil Rights Violations Related to Sexual Assaults

The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights office says Penn State is one of 55 colleges under investigation for possible violations of federal law regarding the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.

Penn State is one of five colleges in Pennsylvania under investigation. The other schools are Carnegie Mellon University, Franklin and Marshall College, Swarthmore College and Temple University.

Officials say the investigations stem from complaints received by the Civil Rights office and those initiated by the office as compliance reviews.

At the center of the investigation is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in all education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

All universities receiving federal funds must comply with the law or risk losing federal funding and be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for further action.

Previously, officials confirmed a Title IX investigation with Penn State was underway, but Thursday’s list is the first comprehensive look at which campuses are under review for possible violations.

“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,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said in a prepared statement.

Lhamon noted that a school’s presence on the list “in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law.”

Experts say one in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime with college-aged women most likely to be victimized.

Penn State University has seen a dramatic increase in such crimes since 2010 when four on-campus sexual assaults were reported compared to 56 in 2012.

The university attributed the increase to the crimes of Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach and convicted pedophile, as well as an increase in university training related to sexual assault prevention and reporting.

Officials say the primary goal of a Title IX investigation is to “ensure that the campus is in compliance with federal law, which demands that students are not denied the ability to participate fully in educational and other opportunities due to sex.”

Officials say the department will not disclose any case-specific details about the schools under investigation. When an investigation concludes, officials say the department will disclose, upon request, whether the Civil Rights office has entered into a resolution agreement to address compliance concerns at a particular campus or found insufficient evidence of a Title IX violation there.

Officials released the Education Department’s investigation list on the heels of a White House report on sexual assaults at college campuses.

The White House task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault released a report Tuesday that includes guidelines and recommendations for identifying the problem, preventing sexual assault, and proper response after a sexual assault has occurred.

As part of the White House initiative, the Education Department released revised guidelines earlier this week describing the responsibilities of colleges, universities and schools receiving federal funds to address sexual violence and other forms of sex discrimination under Title IX.

Officials say the guidelines provide greater clarity about the requirements of the law around sexual violence as requested by institutions and students.

Roughly 60 percent of sexual assaults never get reported to police, making it one of the most underreported crimes in the United States, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Penn State officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

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