Ed. Dept. uses law to investigate campus crimes

BY foxsports • November 10, 2011

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 universities.

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 reports.

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 institutions.

''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 trustees.

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.''

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Kimberly Hefling can be followed at http://twitter.com/khefling


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