(This post has been updated.)
The U.S. Department of Education is launching an investigation into the scandal at Penn State University to see if officials there failed to comply with a law that requires institutions of higher education to disclose criminal offenses that occur on campus each year.
The department issued a statement Wednesday saying it was launching the probe in relation to the scandal in which former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually abusing a number of young boys over a period of years, including incidents on campus. A number of school officials were told about at least one of the incidents after they happened, but the police were never called.
Legendary Penn State Coach Joe Paterno and the school’s president, Graham B. Spanier, were fired by the Board of Trustees on Wednesday night. Two other administrators left earlier as a result of the scandal.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan was quoted in the statement as saying: “If these allegations of sexual abuse are true then this is a horrible tragedy for those young boys. 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.”
The law under which the department’s probe will be launched is the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, also known as the Clery Act.
It was named in memory of a freshman named Jeanne Ann Clery who was raped and murdered while sleeping in her dormitory at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University in 1986. The school did not inform the campus community about nearly 40 violent crimes that had taken place on campus in the few years before her murder.
The Clery Act not only requires colleges and universities to disclose reported crimes, but also requires schools in some cases to issue a warning to the campus community if a crime constitutes a threat to the campus.
Because the Clery Act is connected to participation in federal student financial aid programs, investigators in the department’s Office of Federal Student Aid will conduct the investigation, and the Office for Civil Rights will assess whether other action is required, the statement said.
The Education Department can impose fines against schools that violate the act — up $27,500 per violation — and may suspend them from participating in federal student financial aid programs.
The department invoked the Clery Act last March when it fined Virginia Tech $55,000 — the maximum possible fine — for violations of the safety law in connection with a 2007 shooting rampage by a mentally ill student that left more than 30 students and teachers dead. Department officials said that the school had failed to provide timely notification to the campus of danger; the school said it had.
Education Department officials also said that the school deserved a much larger fine than the law allowed.
Congress amended the Clery Act in 2008 in response to the Virginia Tech shootings, in part adding a provision that requires schools to develop a campus emergency response plan.
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