Ed Dept: Penn State failed to protect students following Sandusky scandal

Dive Brief: 

  • Penn State University systematically failed to protect students from sexual misconduct in the years following the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday. 

  • The department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) conducted an investigation that found the university hasn’t appropriately responded to student complaints of sexual harassment. It also hasn’t maintained records necessary to show it is following Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination at colleges receiving public funds. 

  • The department is directing Penn State to make “major changes” to come into compliance with the law, as it similarly did with Michigan State University and the University of Southern California following sexual misconduct scandals on their campuses. 

Dive Insight: 

In 2014, the Ed Department launched an investigation into Penn State after Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at the university, was convicted of sexually abusing minors on its campus. 

A separate investigation conducted by former FBI Director Louis Freeh accused several college officials of covering up Sandusky’s crimes to save the university’s reputation. And in 2017, two former university officials pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of child endangerment for not alerting authorities after they learned of accusations against Sandusky. 

Penn State moved to bolster its Title IX procedures following the Sandusky scandal. However, the Ed Department’s investigation into more than 300 Title IX case files found that the university didn’t follow its procedures and that some students who filed complaints abandoned them after it took months for their case to move forward.

“Given all of the attention that Penn State has faced in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, it is disappointing that so many serious problems have remained at that university system,” Kenneth Marcus, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement. 

The Ed Department will monitor how Penn State handles cases it resolves in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years. It also is requiring the university to address cases it mishandled and to revise its recordkeeping practices. 

The investigation follows similar probes into two other schools. 

The department fined Michigan State $4.5 million last year and ordered it to change its Title IX reporting processes. The directive resulted from an investigation into how the university handled complaints against former sports doctor Larry Nasser, who has been accused of sexual assault by hundreds of women. 

And last month, the department said it was forcing U of Southern California to overhaul its Title IX policies. The agency found the university had failed to investigate accusations that a former campus gynecologist sexually abused his patients. 

The department has been boasting about closing out OCR investigations at a faster clip than it did under the Obama administration. However, this is partly due to a policy enacted in 2018 that lets it ignore cases brought by serial filers or that it finds too onerous to pursue, The New York Times reported

It has also been leaning on mediation to help clear hundreds of dormant discrimination complaints, sexual assault survivors and their lawyers told Education Dive earlier this year. The Ed Department pushed back, saying in a statement that the assertion “ignores how aggressively OCR has been investigating Title IX cases.” 

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