U.S. Department of Education Holds Penn State Accountable for its Failure to Protect Students from Sexual Misconduct, Requires Major Overhaul of Title IX Procedures Following Compliance Review
WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced today that the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is requiring major changes at Pennsylvania State University after finding that the school failed to protect students and address their complaints of sexual abuse in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The prior administration failed to resolve the investigation, which opened in early 2014.
“As I’ve said before, ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’ and for too long the students of Penn State have been denied justice,” said Secretary DeVos. “I committed to clearing out the backlog of cases we inherited from the previous administration, and we are doing just that. I hope resolution of this Title IX investigation and the changes we are requiring will help to bring continued healing to the Penn State community.”
With the conclusion of this investigation, OCR is holding Penn State accountable for its failures to have systems in place that protect students, including when sexual misconduct involves athletic staff. The University must now provide for individual remedies for survivors whose complaints OCR determined that Penn State failed to handle promptly and equitably, revise its recordkeeping practices to ensure proper documentation of sexual harassment complaints, and report to OCR on the handling of all Title IX complaints for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years.
OCR reviewed University policies and procedures for resolving allegations of sexual harassment effective during the 2011-12 through the 2019-20 academic years. OCR focused its review on eight campuses: the University Park campus and the Altoona, Behrend (Erie), Berks, Harrisburg, Hazelton, Schuylkill, and Worthington Commonwealth campuses and conducted file reviews of complaints of sexual harassment.
OCR found that the University violated Title IX in different ways across several years:
- During the 2016-2017 academic year for student complaints and the 2015-2016 and 2017-2018 academic years for complaints first reported to the Athletic Department, Penn State failed to appropriately respond to complaints of sexual harassment.
- During the 2016-17 academic year, the University failed to maintain records necessary for OCR to determine whether the University complied with Title IX. During the 2017-2018 through the 2019-2020 academic years, the University continued to fail to implement adequate record-keeping practices.
- During the 2019-20 academic year, the University’s Title IX policies and procedures failed to provide adequate notice to students and employees of the procedures; to ensure fair and appropriate investigation of complaints; to provide procedures for complaints alleging discrimination based on sex carried out by employees and third parties; to provide designated and reasonably prompt timeframes for the major stages of the complaint process; and to provide notice to parties of the outcome of investigations of complaints.
In addition to these violations, OCR also found that from 2017-2019 Penn State had imposed interim suspensions prior to providing the accused an opportunity to respond to allegations. From 2017-2019, the University also structured hearings in a way that may have precluded relevant information.
As a result of the serious deficiencies unearthed by OCR’s investigation, OCR and Penn State have entered into a Resolution Agreement that requires Penn State to take the following actions:
- Provide for individual remedies as appropriate for instances where it has not promptly and equitably processed complaints of sexual harassment.
- Report to OCR on its processing of sexual harassment complaints for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years.
- Review and revise its Title IX policies to ensure they provide for an appropriate response to complaints of sexual harassment.
- Revise its recordkeeping practices to ensure that it is adequately and accurately documenting all complaints of sexual harassment and the University’s response to such complaints.
- Facilitate additional relevant Title IX training for University staff, including athletics staff.
- Notify participants in its youth programs and their parents and guardians that Title IX prohibits sexual harassment against youth participants.
“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,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth L. Marcus. “As OCR has demonstrated, schools will be held responsible for how they respond to complaints of sexual harassment. We are pleased that Penn State has now agreed, in a spirit of cooperation, to fix the problems that we have identified. OCR will closely monitor the University to make sure that it fulfills the requirements of the Resolution Agreement.”
Under the leadership of Secretary DeVos, OCR has moved aggressively to investigate schools that fail to protect students from sexual misconduct and to bring them into compliance with civil rights law. The Department has most notably required sweeping reforms to protect students at Michigan State University, Chicago Public Schools, and the University of Southern California.
Over the last three years, OCR has closed a total of 172 sexual violence cases with change, a 375% increase over the prior eight years in the annual number of sexual violence cases closed with change.
The Letter of Finding in the Pennsylvania State University case is available here. The Resolution Agreement is available here.
OCR recognizes that many educational institutions are focused now on protecting the health, safety, and welfare of students and staff in response to COVID-19, while continuing to conduct their educational mission. OCR has engaged with the University regarding appropriate short-term flexibility for meeting the terms of the Resolution Agreement under these circumstances.
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