Federal investigators have concluded that Penn State should pay a record fine of nearly $2.4 million for numerous violations of campus safety law — findings that arose from a five-year probe related to former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of several children over more than a decade.
The Education Department said Thursday that it uncovered “11 serious findings” of Penn State’s noncompliance with the federal law that requires crimes on college and university campuses to be reported.
Among them were violations directly related to Sandusky’s abuse of children, a failure to issue timely warnings of threats to the campus and a failure to keep an accurate and complete daily crime log. One finding — a “failure to properly classify reported incidents and disclose crime statistics from 2008 to 2011” — carried a recommended fine of more than $2.1 million.
If upheld, the total fine would be the largest by far since the law was enacted more than 25 years ago.
“For colleges and universities to be safe spaces for learning and self-development, institutions must ensure student safety — a part of which is being transparent about incidents on their campuses. Disclosing this information is the law,” Ted Mitchell, U.S. undersecretary of education, said in a statement. “When we determine that an institution is not upholding this obligation, then there must be consequences.”
The announcement culminated the federal investigation begun after Sandusky’s arrest in 2011. The scandal shook Penn State to its core, toppling legendary football coach Joe Paterno; the university’s president, Graham Spanier; and other senior officials. Paterno died in January 2012, his reputation shattered, as questions were mounting about his response when he and other university officials became aware of reports that his former longtime assistant had sexually abused children.
Paterno was not charged with any crimes and maintained his innocence until his death. This year, evidence has emerged that he may have heard about accusations against Sandusky as early as 1976. His family and supporters question that evidence and deny that Paterno covered up Sandusky’s crimes.
Sandusky, now 72, was convicted in June 2012 of 45 counts of sexually abusing 10 boys over more than a decade and is serving a term of at least 30 years in state prison.
Federal investigators faulted Penn State for failing to issue an emergency notification to students and employees in early 2011 after senior officials learned of “significant evidence” that Sandusky posed a danger to the community, according to a 35-page letter the Education Department sent Penn State. Sandusky, who had retired as assistant coach in 1999, was still a regular and frequent presence on campus.
An emergency alert, the federal investigators wrote, “would have informed the campus community that there was a dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or employees occurring on campus, and the University has not provided any reasonable explanation for not issuing such a warning under these circumstances.”
Penn State said in a statement on its website that it had provided investigators with “unfettered access” to all the information they sought.
“While regrettably we cannot change the past, today the University has been recognized for significantly strengthening our programs since 2011,” the statement said. “The safety and security of our University community is a top priority, and we are dedicated to full compliance with the Clery Act and the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act.”
The 1990 campus safety law is named for Jeanne Clery, a student at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University who was raped and murdered in her dormitory room in 1986. The law requires colleges and universities to disclose security policies and crime data and give timely warning of threats to the campus community. On a federal website, the public can inspect crime and fire statistics that schools submit every year to comply with the law, showing total reports of sex offenses, burglaries and other incidents.
The government has issued numerous Clery Act fines. The largest, until the Penn State case, was levied against Eastern Michigan University. The public school in Ypsilanti agreed in 2008 to pay $350,000 after investigators found that it failed to provide a timely warning after a female student was found slain in her dorm room two years earlier, among other violations.
In 2014, Virginia Tech paid a $32,500 fine after federal investigators concluded that the public university in Blacksburg did not give students and staff timely warning when a student gunman started a rampage that left more than 30 dead on April 16, 2007.
In the Penn State case, the government found violations that suggested problems beyond Sandusky’s crimes. The university, it said in the letter to Penn State, “largely ignored” many of its Clery-related duties, lacking sufficient staff and a system to ensure compliance.
Investigators found that the university did not give students, employees and the public accurate crime data in published reports from 2008 to 2011. Dozens of incidents, from forcible sex offenses to drug and liquor violations, were misclassified or improperly omitted from required annual security reports disclosed to the public, investigators said. As a result, they said, the public was deprived of “important safety information.”
Penn State, with 47,000 students on its main campus at State College, perennially ranks in the upper echelon of public flagship universities. University trustees said in 2013 that they implemented sweeping governance reforms to fix problems the scandal exposed.
Ben Andreozzi, an attorney who has represented some of Sandusky’s victims in civil suits, said he hopes the federal action against Penn State will draw more attention to a problem that plagues other schools: their failure to disclose crime and security lapses.
“The sad thing is that this goes on at other institutions every day and we don’t hear about it,” he said. “It’s possible that the amount of the fine reflects the media coverage related to Penn State. I’m not here to make excuses for Penn State’s oversight. But it’s an unfortunate reality that the failure to report crimes is going on throughout our country.”