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Penn State's record number of sex offense reports spurs federal inquiry

By Morgan Winsor and Julia Lull, CNN
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue January 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Penn State fielded 56 reports of sex offenses on campus in 2012, report says
  • Many occurred before 2011, and better training may have raise number, school says
  • Department of Education officials will look into university's Title IX compliance

(CNN) -- Penn State University revealed a record number of forcible sex offense reports for the 2012 calendar year, more than half of which it said had occurred years earlier, some as far back as the 1970s.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights announced last week it is launching an independent civil rights enforcement investigation of Penn State to determine whether the university "has responded immediately and appropriately" to complaints of sexual offenses.

The investigation will also determine whether the university is in compliance with federal law in its handling of allegations of sexual violence committed by students or staff, with a particular emphasis on complaints of sexual assault, according to a letter sent to the university's president Thursday.

The annual campus security report from Penn State listed 56 forcible sex offenses on its main campus in 2012, which is more than double the number of sex offenses reported for the previous year and 14 times the number reported in 2010.

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Under Title IX, a school must ensure that students are not denied or limited in the ability to participate in or benefit from its educational programs or activities on the basis of sex. Penn State, like other postsecondary institutions, must collect and disclose information about certain crimes on and near its campuses under the Clery Act, and compliance is monitored by the Department of Education, according to a statement on the investigation from Jim Bradshaw, spokesman for the department.

"Our initial review of Penn State's sexual harassment policy, compounded by a dramatic increase in the number of forcible sex offenses occurring on campus as reported by the university itself, raised legal concerns that compelled us to investigate," Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement on the investigation.

But the Penn State report also noted that 36 of the total 63 sex offenses -- some of which occurred off campus -- in 2012 actually occurred earlier, from the 1970s through 2011. Some of the listed offenses can also be attributed to the crimes of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted of sexually abusing young boys in 2012, according to the university's Clery Act compliance manager, Gabe Gates.

In a news release, Gates also stated the overall increase might be due in part to the additional Clery Act training that's been provided for 5,000 individuals at Penn State over the last year. This training may have led to greater awareness of how to report these crimes and what resources are available to victims and witnesses, Gates said.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers told CNN the university "is looking forward to working with the Office for Civil Rights on this proactive compliance review in order to further the purposes of Title IX, promote and protect the safety of the Penn State community and strengthen Penn State as an institution."

In an op-ed published over the weekend, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discussed the unprecedented national effort to address the alarming rate of sexual assault on college campuses.

According to Duncan, colleges and universities reported more than 4,800 forcible sex offenses to the federal government in 2012, which is 50% higher than the number of reports in 2009. One in five female students report they suffered an attempted or completed sexual assault at college, along with 6% of male students, Duncan wrote in the article.

"No parent should ever fear for a child's safety when he or she departs for college. But the painful truth is that sexual violence is far too prevalent today on campus," Duncan wrote.

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