(Reuters) - Penn State University could face a record government penalty, potentially in the millions, for failing to report campus crime, including Jerry Sandusky’s child sex abuse, experts said on Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Penn State for possible violations of the Clery Act, which requires colleges to collect and report daily and annual crime statistics and issue timely warnings to students and others.
The DOE is seeking school records from 1998 to 2011, a 13-year span in which Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, sexually abused boys in campus showers amid what investigators say was a cover-up by the university to shield its reputation.
Sandusky, 68, faces a sentence of as many as 373 years in prison after being convicted in June of sexually assaulting 10 boys.
Since the Clery Act requires schools to keep records going back only seven years, the DOE’s request for 13 years of records from Penn State is highly unusual, said Dolores Stafford, a campus security consultant and former chief of police at George Washington University in Washington.
“This is the most extensive Clery Act investigation ever conducted,” said S. Daniel Carter, director of a safety program at VTV Family Outreach Foundation in Centreville, Virginia.
Penn State declined to comment other than to say it was cooperating with all investigations, according to a spokesman.
The Clery Act was named for Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered in 1986 in her freshman dorm room at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, about 170 miles from Penn State.
Clery Act violators may be punished by fines of up to $27,500 per incident as well as loss of federal aid including grants, loans and work-study payments.
While such violations could put Penn State’s $660 million in annual federal student aid at risk, that money appears safe since the DOE has never used its biggest hammer - taking away federal funding - to punish a Clery Act violation.
The harshest penalty has been a $350,000 fine paid by Eastern Michigan University for several violations, including a failure to warn students after the 2006 murder of a classmate, which the school denied for months.
But Penn State could face a much bigger fine based on the number of criminal incidents that may have gone unreported.
“It would not surprise me if the fine at Penn State exceeds the fine at Eastern Michigan,” Stafford said.
Carter agreed the penalty record could be shattered by Penn State, pointing to a scathing report released last week by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, which found Clery Act violations on the campus were egregious and systemic.
“There could be multiple millions of dollars in penalties,” Carter said. “The Sandusky incidents could potentially be the tip of the iceberg.”
Carter said DOE investigators would likely find years of discrepancies like those he found when he worked with Penn State as part of a security watchdog group founded by Clery’s parents.
Carter said he met with considerable resistance from Penn State before it finally disclosed 13 sexual offenses on campus in 2002. Its initial report showed zero.
Still, with Penn State’s endowment topping $1.8 billion, even a multimillion-dollar fine would be little more than a slap on the wrist. The school also faces an estimated $100 million in settlements with Sandusky’s victims.
The Clery Act, passed in 1990, requires allegations of campus crimes to be reported by school staff, from coaches to top administrators, so incidents can be posted and warnings issued.
The Freeh report said those were precisely the people who kept secrets at Penn State.
Part of the Freeh report discussed potential Clery violations, including Sandusky’s 1998 assault of an 11-year-old boy and the 2001 rape of a boy who appeared to be about 10 years old but whose identity remains unknown to investigators.
Both incidents occurred in the football locker room showers.
The victim’s mother reported the 1998 incident to campus police. According to the Freeh report, then-Police Chief Thomas Harmon told University Vice President Gary Schultz: “We’re going to hold off on making any crime log entry. At this point in time I can justify that decision because of the lack of clear evidence of a crime.”
In 2001, graduate assistant Mike McQueary saw the sexual assault and told football coach Joe Paterno, who told Athletic Director Tim Curley, who subsequently consulted with Schultz and university President Graham Spanier. No one ever went to police.
“Paterno, Curley and McQueary were obligated to report the 2001 Sandusky incident to the University Police Department for inclusion in Clery Act statistics and for determining whether a timely warning should be issued to the University community. No record exists of such a report,” the Freeh report said.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Peter Cooney