U.S. agency eyes sex assault reports at Penn State

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HARRISBURG – The U.S. Department of Education is looking into Penn State’s handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints to see if it 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 Thursday, and said in a statement 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.


The Centre Daily Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on the existence of the investigation Sunday.


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.


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