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Federal Office to Review Penn State’s Handling of Sexual-Violence Reports

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating whether Pennsylvania State University’s handling of allegations of sexual violence committed by students or staff members is in compliance with federal law, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

The office’s review, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law that bars gender discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds, will examine university policies and whether Penn State has responded appropriately to complaints. The review was triggered by a sharp increase in reported forcible sex offenses in the university’s own reports of crime data, Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement quoted by the newspaper.

The review is independent of other investigations regarding Penn State’s handling of allegations involving Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach who was convicted in 2012 of sexually assaulting children.

The increase in sexual-violence reports at Penn State occurred as the university took steps in 2012 to enhance its compliance with another federal statute, the Clery Act. It hired a manager for Clery Act compliance that year, put new policies into effect, and required training for campus-security authorities. Reports of forcible sex offenses rose that year to 56, after only 24 such incidents were reported the year before, and only four in 2010.

S. Daniel Carter, a longtime campus-safety advocate, described Penn State’s actions as “probably the single most intensive Clery Act compliance effort taken by any university” and said that effort was the reason for the jump in sexual-violence reports from Penn State.

The university’s actions stemmed in part from its own investigation of the Sandusky scandal and came as colleges and universities across the country updated policies in response to guidance from the Office for Civil Rights in 2011 on their responsibilities in handling complaints of sexual harassment and violence on their campuses. Just last week, President Obama promised increased federal scrutiny of campus policies and responses to reports of rape and sexual assault.

A Penn State spokeswoman, Lisa Powers, said in an email to the Post-Gazette that the university was “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.”

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