The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has launched an independent civil rights enforcement investigation of Pennsylvania State University following a review of their sexual harassment policy and a record number of forcible sex offense reports for the university in 2012.

Penn State University listed 56 forcible sex offenses on its main campus in 2012, which is 2 times more than they reported in 2011 and 14 times more than the number reported in 2010. Thirty-six of 63 total reported sex offenses had occurred from the 1970s through 2011, prompting an investigation to determine whether complaints were improperly handled in prior years to keep numbers artificially low.

The department informed Penn State of the investigation in a letter Thursday and made a public statement Sunday about their concerns. Their letter to Penn State President Rodney Erickson indicated that they had not yet reached a conclusion as to whether or not the university had violated federal law.

“Our initial review of Penn State’s sexual harassment policy, compounded by a dramatic increase in the number of forcible sex offenses occurring on camp[us as reported by the university itself, raised legal concerns that compelled us to investigate,” Catherine Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, said in a statement.

The university’s spike in reported offenses echoes a national trend in which colleges and universities reported over 4,800 forcible sex offenses in 2012 – a 50 percent increase from the number of reports in 2009. It is unclear whether these increases indicate purposeful mishandling of sexual assault on campuses or a growing awareness by college administrators of the Clery Act and Title IX policies which compel them to act. In 2013, the OCR launched investigations into various university policies, including those at the University of Connecticut, Yale, the University of South Carolina, and the University of North Carolina, after students and faculty came forward to report mishandling of sexual assault and harassment on those campuses. The White House also recently launched a task force to prevent sexual assault on campus, with President Obama declaring that  “no one in America is more at risk of being raped or assaulted than college women.”

Media Resources: New York Times 1/26/2014; CNN 1/28/2014; Feminist Newswire 1/22/2014, 12/11/2013, 8/2/2013, 7/23/2013, 7/8/2013

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