The U.S. Departm ent 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.
On the campus of 45,783 students, 56 forcible sex offenses were reported in 2012.
"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," Mr. Carter said.
It's more than twice the number reported at Penn State in 2011, 24.
And it's 14 times more than in 2010, when only four assaults were reported, according to Clery Report crime data.
At a university of Penn State's size, highs usually peak in the teens and 20s, Mr. Carter said. Indiana University in Bloomington, with 42,133 students, reported 16 forcible sexual assaults in 2001, 11 the following year and 27 in 2012 -- two fewer than Penn State reported in 2012 alone. At Michigan State University in East Lansing, with an enrollment of 48,783, reported even fewer still, with 14 forcible sex offenses in 2010, 15 in 2011 and 20 in 2012.
Among all universities reporting forcible sex offenses, that number grew from 2,986 nationally in 2010 to 3,948 in 2012, an increase of almost a third, according to Clery data.
Additional attention on reporting procedures and "critical" support for sexual abuse survivors can cause numbers to change dramatically, Mr. Carter said.
"Seeing a doubling or even more in some cases is actually not that unusual," he said.
An April 2011 letter from the Office for Civil Rights detailed expectations, responsibility and requirements of universities responding to sexual violence.
"Throughout 2011, institutions were significantly increasing their responses to sexual violence on campus," Mr. Carter said.
The White House said 1 in 5 female students are assaulted.
The main reason people don't report sexual assault is feeling as if they won't receive support in their community, said Kristen Houser, vice president of public relations at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
"An increase in reports doesn't mean an increase in incidents. It's an increase in confidence that you will get [the support] you need," she said.
But she said even those elevated numbers don't quite paint the picture at Penn State.
"56 out of 45,000? I'm going to say we still have a gross under-reporting problem," Ms. Houser said.
Lexi Belculfine: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1878. Twitter: @LexiBelc.