Pennsylvania State University has failed to provide “prompt and equitable” reporting and investigation processes for several years of complaints of sexual misconduct, the Department of Education determined after a six-year examination of the university’s Title IX procedures.
The department’s Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, concluded an investigation of eight of Penn State’s campuses opened by the Obama administration in 2014, following revelations that numerous high-ranking university officials neglected to report decades of child sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach. The investigation showed that Penn State “has not adequately addressed its failures in the wake of the Sandusky scandal,” wrote Carol Ashley, enforcement director for OCR, in a March 26 letter to President Eric Barron. Ashley outlined Penn State’s noncompliance with Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in education institutions that receive federal funding.
Penn State’s practices have violated the rights of both complainants and respondents in cases of alleged sexual misconduct, Ashley wrote. The university’s current Title IX policies do not provide adequate information to students and staff members about where to file a complaint, and an analysis of the 2016-17 academic year found significant delays in case processing, according to the letter. Ashley also identified specific instances when the athletic department failed to report to the university’s Title IX coordinator complaints of sexual harassment by coaches made from 2015 to 2018.
Parts of the OCR findings include past practices that have been addressed by Penn State over the course of the investigation, and remaining noncompliance “will be the immediate focus of the university’s efforts to more effectively meet OCR guidance and the needs of our community,” said a Penn State statement.
"The university remains committed to increasing the responsiveness of its policies for our students and employees,” the statement said. “We believe this review by OCR will assist Penn State in improving how it addresses the issue of sexual violence, misconduct and harassment on campus in the future.”
OCR also determined that the university’s policies violate due process rights by suspending students against whom sexual misconduct complaints are made without first meeting with those students. (Accused students can then appeal such interim suspensions.) Penn State only recently began permitting witnesses to testify at Title IX hearings, and the Office of Student Conduct can exclude any witnesses found to be “duplicative, irrelevant, or inappropriate,” which could prevent important testimony during hearings, the letter said.
“The university’s reaction to the Sandusky scandal exhibited wholesale problems amounting to a cluster of grievously deficient failures,” Ashley wrote.
Penn State has agreed “in a spirit of cooperation” to correct the issues identified by OCR, which additionally include various problems with record keeping and documentation, Kenneth Marcus, assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a press release from the Department of Education. The university will continue to report to OCR about how it handles all Title IX complaints made during the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year and 2020-21, the release 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,” Marcus said. “OCR will closely monitor the university to make sure that it fulfills the requirements of the resolution agreement.”