Monday, January 27, 2014

OCR Investigates Increase in Sexual Assault Reported at Penn State

The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights announced that it has initiated a compliance review of Penn State's handling of sexual assault complaints, "to determine if the University has responded immediately and appropriately."  An OCR official reportedly confirmed that the agency was motivated to investigate based on an initial review of the university's sexual harassment policy, along with a "dramatic increase in the number of reported forcible sex offenses."  According to the university's Clery Act reports, forcible sex offenses rose from 4 in 2010, to 24 in 2011, to 56 in 2012. At other schools of Penn State's size, that number "peaks in the teens and twenties," according to a campus safety advocate interviewed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. So with 56, Penn State really stands out as a target for inquiry.  

A compliance review is different from other investigations conducted by OCR in that it is driven by the agency's own decision to investigate, and not a response to a particular compliant it has received. Yet, OCR was careful to spell out in its letter that it has "reached no conclusions" as to whether the university has violated any federal law.  Moreover, Penn State was the subject of a uniquely-high profile sexual abuse case involving its athletic department during the time period. This could have influenced reporting raising awareness about victim's rights and reducing the sense of isolation that often deters reporting of sexual assault.  For context in this regard, coach Sandusky was indicted in November of 2011.  So the case could plausibly explain, at least in part, the surge in both 2011 and 2012. 

Another way to look at Penn State's 56 sexual assaults in 2012 is to consider the likelihood that it comes closer to reality than the lower numbers reported by other schools; it doesn't necessarily mean that Penn State has a worse sexual assault problem.  And while it's not good that there were (at least) 56 victims of sexual assault at Penn State that year, it is better that those 56 victims reported than not. It may reflect that students are increasing perceiving the university as a place where reporting sexual assault that it is both safe and worthwhile. It's important that OCR's review not only identify any aspects of Penn State's response to sexual assault that is lacking, but also give an honest account of what those numbers actually reflect.  I'm sure the last thing OCR wants is to send the message to other schools that honest reporting only brings trouble.