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