Education Dept. Hits Penn State Again for Sexual Misconduct Procedures

WASHINGTON — The Education Department announced Thursday that it had ordered Pennsylvania State University to make significant changes to the way it investigates complaints of sexual misconduct after a recent investigation found the school continued to mishandle cases years after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

The agreement requires the university to review and revise its policies and processes for handling complaints filed under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination, including sexual harassment. It also requires the university to provide remedies to individuals whose complaints were mishandled; it must also revise its record-keeping practices and report to the department’s Office for Civil Rights how it processes complaints for the current and upcoming school years.

The resolution concludes an investigation started under the Obama administration in 2014, after the 2012 conviction of Mr. Sandusky, a college football coach who was found guilty of sexually assaulting 10 boys.

The Obama administration fined the university $2.4 million for failing to report the offenses as required by the federal crime disclosure law, known as the Clery Act. Education officials found during that investigation that the university “had significant information even before Sandusky’s indictment that he was a danger to the university community,” the department said.

In its latest review to determine compliance with civil rights laws, the Education Department said it examined the university’s policies and procedures for resolving allegations of sexual harassment from the 2011 to 2019 academic school years. The department said a review of hundreds of case files found violations dating to the 2016-17 academic year, when the school failed to properly respond to complaints, including ones initially made to the athletic department. During the 2016- 17 year, the department said the university also failed to maintain records that would have determined whether it had complied with federal law.

The department also found that between 2017 and 2019, the university violated accused students’ due process rights by imposing sanctions before the students had an opportunity to respond. Penn State conducted Title IX hearings in a way that “may have precluded relevant information,” the department said.

As recently as the 2019-20 school year, the university failed to ensure “fair and appropriate” investigation of complaints and provide procedures for sex discrimination complaints against employees and third parties, the Education Department said.

“Given all of the attention that Penn State has faced in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, it is disappointing that so many serious problems have remained at that university system,” Kenneth L. Marcus, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, said in a statement.

The university said in a statement that many of the department’s findings “relate to a number of past practices, which during the six-year time frame of the investigation have been addressed by Penn State leadership.” It continued, “any remaining findings will be the immediate focus of the university’s efforts.”

Penn State said it produced more than 80,000 pages of documentation related to policies, procedures, training, specific investigations and record keeping. The university said it had not seen the department’s letter of findings before it was released, but it had worked with the Office for Civil Rights on this resolution agreement.

“The university has in place a comprehensive action plan to increase compliance with Title IX requirements,” the statement said.

The Penn State resolution agreement is among a series that the department has announced after investigations of universities’ responses in high-profile sex abuse cases. Since last fall, the department reached agreements with Michigan State University, Chicago Public Schools and the University of Southern California.

The resolution comes as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to release new, contentious rules that would overhaul how all schools that receive federal funding must process complaints of sexual harassment and misconduct.

More than 200 education and civil rights organizations signed a letter this week asking Ms. DeVos to delay releasing the final rules until the nation gets through the coronavirus pandemic.

The department said that during the outbreak, it has extended “appropriate short-term flexibility” to Penn State to meet the terms of the resolution agreement.

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