Ed. Dept. uses law to investigate campus crimes

A federal law the Education Department is using to investigate

whether Penn State failed to report incidents of sexual abuse on

campus is the same one the department used to investigate high

profile crimes at Virginia Tech and at Eastern Michigan


Potentially, a university can lose its ability to offer federal

student aid, if found in violation. That has never happened. But

the department has levied a maximum fine per violation of $27,500.

And while that’s not a huge sum of money, it can add up and put

pressure on universities to make improvements.

The 1990 law is what’s known as the Clery Act, named in honor of

Jeanne Clery, a freshman at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who

was beaten, raped in murdered in her dorm room by another student

in 1986. Under it, colleges and universities must report the number

of crimes on campus and provide warnings in a timely manner if

safety is threatened.

The Education Department announced Wednesday evening that it

would conduct an investigation at Penn State, where the

university’s former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, has

been charged with molesting eight boys in 15 years and two

university officials have been arrested on charges they failed to

notify authorities after being told about an incident. Some of the

alleged incidents occurred in the university football complex.

In the highest fine levied under the Clery Act, Eastern Michigan

University in 2008 agreed to pay $350,000 in fines for covering up

the rape and killing of a student in her dorm room by telling

reporters and her parents there were no signs of foul play.

Virginia Tech said earlier this year it would appeal $55,000 in

federal fines levied against the school for allegedly failing to

quickly alert the campus during the 2007 mass shooting that killed

32 students and faculty members, and the case is pending.

In recent years, the Education Department, while partnered at

times with the FBI, has gone from primarily investigating under the

Clery Act after an incident occurred to a more proactive approach

to ensure the institutions are following the law.

In August, for example, the department after doing an audit,

fined Washington State University $82,500 for violations in 2007 of

the Clery Act, including not properly reporting two sexual

assaults. The government acknowledged the university has made

improvements to its crime reporting since the incidents, but said

the corrective measures do not diminish the seriousness of the

violations. The university, which appealed, has said the

mischaracterizations in crime statistics didn’t endanger students

and since 2008 it has put safeguards in place to double-check such


Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on

Education, said the Clery Act has forced universities to

significantly expand and professionalize their campus security

operations, and the Education Department has not hesitated at times

to use the Clery Act as a ”blunt instrument” against


”I think the Clery Act has resulted in every institution in

higher education taking campus security far more seriously than was

the case 20 years ago,” Hartle said.

But Hartle said the law is extraordinarily detailed and

complicated, which leads some institutions to become confused about

how to comply.

In the Penn State case, the two school administrators, athletic

director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, have stepped

down. They – along with Sandusky – have maintained they are

innocent. The Education Department’s news of its investigation came

in the hours before football coach Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier,

the university president, were forced out by the board of


The Education Department has said its Office of Civil Rights

also is considering whether it should investigate.

Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., a former U.S. attorney who

encouraged Education Secretary Arne Duncan to investigate possible

Clery Act violations at Penn State, said he believes there’s still

a range of degree of compliance with the law among colleges and

universities around the country.

When the Education Department does step in, the investigations

aren’t so much about the fines levied, he said. Instead, Meehan

said they can ”create an incredibly increased awareness of duties

and responsibilities that may cause people in these positions to

appreciate the responsibilities they have and for universities to

do more in the area of compliance.”


Kimberly Hefling can be followed at