Federal officials declined to discuss the scope of the investigation. But a Nov. 9 letter from the Education Department to Penn State requested a long list of documents, including logs of all incidents of crime reported to any campus security authority from 1998 to 2011.
“They’ve asked for absolutely everything,” said S. Daniel Carter, who has been a campus security advocate for more than two decades and works for a foundation started by families of victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Carter said the Penn State investigation may be the department’s largest to date.
When federal officials investigate a school after a high-profile incident, they typically broaden the search to the school’s handling of safety issues over a number of years, according to records that the department has made public. Usually these probes cover one to three years, maybe as many as five or six — but nowhere near the 13 at issue with Penn State.
A Penn State spokesman said the university is cooperating but declined to comment further.
The Clery Act, signed into law in 1990, was named for Jeanne Clery, who was raped, tortured and murdered in 1986 in her dorm room at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. The ultimate penalty under the law is loss of federal aid funding. Officials have never gone that far, instead imposing fines of up to $27,500 per violation.
In the past five years, the Education Department has ramped up Clery Act enforcement. It now has a staff dedicated solely to conducting investigations. It also has partnered with the FBI to audit a random sample of universities, a practice that has revealed widespread problems with crime data reporting and a lack of policies to ensure compliance.
In 2007, the department fined Eastern Michigan University $357,500 — the largest Clery Act penalty to date — for not notifying the campus community that a student had been murdered in her dorm room in December 2006 and that the killer was at large. Instead, school officials led the campus to believe that the student died of natural causes. Two months later, a man was arrested and charged with her rape and murder. Soon after, Eastern Michigan’s president and two top administrators were accused of covering up the crime and fired.
The fine was later reduced to $350,000. Of the 13 Clery Act violations found at the school, three were related to the 2006 murder. The others resulted from a review of 2003, 2004 and 2005 data.