For more than two decades, colleges and universities have been required to publicly share details of campus crimes and report murders, rapes, robberies, arson and other serious offenses to the federal government.
That requirement was apparently unheeded by former Penn State President Graham Spanier, other top officials and the larger ranks of university employees responsible for student safety, the recently released investigation into the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal concluded. The report by former FBI director Louis Freeh found that, outside the campus police department in State College, "awareness and interest" in the federal law known as the Clery Act was "significantly lacking."
The 1990 law is named for Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered four years earlier by a fellow student at a campus that's about a three-hour drive from Penn State.
National campus safety experts say such problems spread far beyond Penn State, even as the U.S. Department of Education has stepped up enforcement in recent years and teamed up with the FBI on some inquiries.
"This is a much broader concern," said S. Daniel Carter, director of a campus safety project at a charitable foundation formed by the families of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting victims. "Penn State is a microcosm of the entire field of higher education."
Though not mentioned by name, Carter is referenced several times in the 267-page Freeh report. In 2007, he helped coordinate the training of several Penn State police officers on the Clery Act while working for the advocacy group Security On Campus, which was formed by Jeanne Clery's parents. He assisted federal education officials in developing a Clery Act handbook starting in 2003. And that same year, he notified Penn State that it had mistakenly reported that there were no sexual assaults on campus when the same federal report noted elsewhere that 11 such incidents had occurred in residence halls.
"They were resistant at first," Carter said. "But they came back and acknowledged they made an error."
A spokesman for the Office of Federal Student Aid said Friday that the education department has reviewed Clery Act compliance at 78 schools since 2007, with 34 of those reviews complete. That compares with an average of just two completed Clery Act reviews over the previous 10 years, according to online records.
Ten schools have been fined a total of $1.4 million for Clery Act violations since 2007, spokesman Chris Greene said. The offenders include Eastern Michigan University, which paid $350,000 for 13 violations in 2008, including a failure to warn students after the 2006 murder of a student, which the school denied for months. In June, the department levied a $110,000 fine against Tarleton State University, a part of the Texas A&M University system, for three unreported sex offenses among more than 70 campus crimes not publicly disclosed.
But Virginia Tech, fined $55,000 for its decision to delay campus warnings of a gunman who would kill 33 people in April 2007, saw its $55,000 fine overturned by an administrative law judge in March. And a federal judge reduced an $82,500 Clery Act fine against Washington State University to $15,000.
The Department of Education has been investigating Penn State since November, when the scope of Sandusky's misconduct emerged after the release of a scathing grand jury report. The former assistant football coach is awaiting sentencing after being convicted last month of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years in his home, on team trips and in school locker rooms. The school could be fined up to $27,000 per violation and have its federal student aid withheld.
"Our investigation covers not just the Sandusky allegations but all potential sexual offense issues at Penn State," Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton said. "We'll continue working with all relevant individuals, including campus officials and law enforcement personnel, to determine whether or not there were any violations of the Clery Act. We are taking a close look at the Freeh report as well as all relevant information to determine how it may aid our investigation."
The Freeh report documents several unsuccessful attempts by Penn State campus police to persuade university leaders to boost their Clery Act efforts. From 1991 to 2007, the university relied on an untrained crime prevention officer to oversee the program. When the officer told a supervisor he needed help or "we could get hurt really bad here," he was told there was no money for such support.
The university created an online reporting system for Clery Act crimes that same year. By 2011, just one report had been submitted. Broader campus training sessions and outreach efforts drew little participation, and the school's Clery Act policy remained in draft form in November – even as Spanier boasted to Freeh's investigators that Penn State was "big on compliance, more than other universities." The school has since hired a Clery Act compliance coordinator.
In a statement released by the campus safety group she helped create with her late husband, Connie Clery expressed her disappointment at the rampant abuse that unfolded on the campus just 170 miles from the school her daughter attended, and in the state where she continues to live.
"I am saddened that these events occurred in Pennsylvania, where (my husband) Howard and I started our campus safety efforts 25 years ago," she said. "Even so, I am heartened by the knowledge that there are many colleges and universities that are now considering their own policies and procedures and making changes in an effort to protect their students.
"There are valuable lessons for institutions to learn from this tragedy," she added. "Students can only have a secure learning environment if the entire campus community makes their safety a priority."
Alison Kiss, executive director of what is now known as the Clery Center for Security on Campus, suggested that the aftermath of Penn State could offer schools a belated chance to shore up their approach to taking crimes on campus seriously, just as the Virginia Tech shooting spurred improvements in threat assessment and emergency planning.
"Sad but true, we are a very reactionary society," she said. "More needs to be done to institutionalize campus safety. It should not fall just on the shoulders of campus police."
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier