Crime on Campus: Penn State Raises Question, Do Colleges Have Too Much Power?

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Penn State students gather at the university to express solidarity with the alleged victims in the Jerry Sandusky case

A lot of big colleges have their own police departments. They are staffed with sworn officers who have the ability to investigate everything from burglaries to murder. Depending on the type of transgression and how it gets reported, some alleged crimes are dealt with in on-campus proceedings and some are passed on to local prosecutors. One of the most troubling aspects of the Penn State scandal is that school officials who were notified that a young boy was allegedly raped in a campus shower in 2002 did not report the incident to local authorities. Their inaction begs the question that even though there are laws in place that stipulate the proper protocol to follow upon hearing reports of sexual abuse, assault and harassment on campus, What's to stop officials at large-scale institutions — many of which operate full-fledged police departments — from sweeping such unpleasantness under the rug?

It's often hard to know how alleged crimes are handled on campus, in part because honor committees and other campus judicial systems have confidential proceedings. One of the few oversight tools the government has is the Clery Act. Named after a Lehigh University student who was raped and strangled by another student in 1986 in her dorm room, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial-aid programs to disclose each year the number of alleged criminal offenses, including sexual offenses, that are recorded on campus or in other areas that are under university control, such as remote classrooms and fraternity houses. In addition, schools must also issue timely warnings in cases in which the reported crime represents a threat to the campus community. Last week the Department of Education announced that it was launching Clery Act investigations at two schools: one at Penn State involving allegations that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had sexually assaulted boys on campus and the other at Milwaukee's Marquette University for allegedly failing to report in a timely manner allegations that two athletes had sexually assaulted female students.

"If these allegations of sexual abuse are true, then this is a horrible tragedy for those young boys," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement announcing the department's investigation into Penn State. "If it turns out that some people at the school knew of the abuse and did nothing or covered it up, that makes it even worse. Schools and school officials have a legal and moral responsibility to protect children and young people from violence and abuse."

But despite having such responsibility, disclosing campus crime has often been a process fraught with confusion, loopholes, inaction, inconsistencies and, in some cases, negligence and cover-ups. To date, seven colleges and universities have paid Clery Act fines for failure to comply with the law; sometimes the violation stemmed from not having the appropriate institutional structures in place, sometimes from failing to disclose information. The most egregious case to date took place at Eastern Michigan University in 2006 when administrators were found to have covered up the rape and murder of a student, letting her parents think she had died of natural causes. The university was fined $350,000, the largest fine ever paid under the Clery Act. (A lawsuit forced Eastern Michigan to pay the victim's family an additional $2.5 million.)

Going after Penn State and Eastern Michigan for violating reporting requirements in these instances is a bit like going after Al Capone for tax evasion. Where the Clery Act wields the most influence is in how schools handle the much more common transgression of students being sexually assaulted.

Some of the schools that have been investigated for possible Clery Act violations have their own police forces. Others, like Marquette, do not. Because the members of Marquette's public-safety department are not sworn officers, the university had an obligation to report any accusations of sexual assault to a law-enforcement agency, and in the two recent cases involving athletes, the investigations may have been harmed because police did not get the information quickly, according to a statement Milwaukee County district attorney John Chisholm made in May.

The ability schools have to make decisions internally and utilize in-house departments is what allowed a Penn State football player to admit in a campus judicial proceeding in December 2002 to raping a fellow student during the fall semester, but not to have his punishment — a two-semester suspension — kick in until after he played in a January bowl game.

Stories like that are why the Department of Education, which is charged with regulating schools under the Clery Act, says it has stepped up its efforts in the past few years, after facing criticism in the past for not conducting enough reviews and not imposing penalties when violations were found. Under the Obama Administration, the department created a team dedicated to compliance, monitoring and enforcement of the Clery Act. So far this year, six institutions have been found at fault and are facing fines — Oregon State University, Lincoln University in Missouri, the University of Northern Iowa, the University of Vermont, Washington State University and Yale University — which is the same number of institutions that were fined in the first 18 years of the law's existence. Four other institutions are either in the process of being fined or are appealing. "It takes vigilance," Justin Hamilton, spokesman for the Department of Education said. "We can never be in every university all the time, nor do we want to be. We want to trust the schools and believe that they are living up to their obligations, but when they're not, we will act decisively, effectively and fairly." Hamilton says the department now regularly conducts campus visits even on those campuses where no incidents have been reported, closely monitors media reports and has conversations with people on the ground in an effort to be more proactive.

S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security on Campus, a nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of campus crime, said the Administration's efforts have helped. "One of the keys to ensuring that colleges and universities do not keep crimes, including sexual violence, secret is for the Department of Education to continue improving its Clery Act oversight," he said. At the time of the March 2002 incident involving Sandusky and a young boy in a Penn State locker room, only nine schools had ever even been reviewed under the law and only one fine (a modest $15,000) had ever been paid. Now a total of 49 schools have been reviewed, and 26 of them have been reviewed in just the past three years. According to Carter, the majority of the investigations in the past three years were randomly selected, whereas in the past, reviews were generally only conducted in the aftermath of a high-profile incident. Additionally, six-figure fines are now the norm rather than the exception. "The random reviews in tandem with six-figure fines are a strong incentive for institutions to not try and sweep things under the rug," Carter said. Still, he added, "Ultimately, sometimes there's no way to know what's happening on campus unless someone who does know comes forward."