By Nina Bernstein (New York Times)
November 11, 2011
After the body of an Eastern Michigan University freshman was found in her dorm room in December 2006, naked from the waist down with a pillow over her head, the chief of the university police said there was "no reason to suspect foul play," and let her parents believe she had died of natural causes.
That silence held for more than two months. In that time, the student who was eventually convicted in her murder had free run of a campus where he was previously caught climbing into a window of a university building.
In recent years Marquette University has been accused of mishandling accusations of sexual assault by four athletes, and Arizona State has been faulted in handling a student's rape, allegedly by a football player with a history of sexual aggression on campus.
The Penn State scandal has ended the reign of the university's patriarch and longtime football coach, Joe Paterno, amid national expressions of shock. But the case is also emblematic of a parallel judicial universe that exists at many of the country's colleges and universities.
On most of these campuses, law enforcement is the responsibility of sworn police officers who report to university authorities, not to the public. With full-fledged arrest powers, such campus police forces have enormous discretion in deciding whether to refer cases directly to district attorneys or to leave them to the quiet handling of in-house disciplinary proceedings.
The Penn State police did investigate a complaint in 1998 about Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach who was charged last week with sexually abusing eight boys, and turned it over to the district attorney, who declined to prosecute.
But many serious offenses reach neither campus police officers nor their off-campus counterparts because they are directly funneled to administrators.
That is what happened at Penn State in 2002, according to a grand jury report, when a graduate assistant to Mr. Paterno reported that he saw Mr. Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in the locker room showers.
"I think we're just on the cusp of breaking the silence," said Colby Bruno, the managing lawyer at the Boston-based Victim Rights Law Center who specializes in cases of sexual assault on campus. "But there are a lot of very invidious ways that a school can go about squelching these reports. This is everyone's problem; it's not just a sports problem or a sports-icon problem."
Like the Eastern Michigan case, which brought a federal investigation and a lawsuit that forced the university to pay the victim's family $2.5 million, the Penn State case is expected to intensify the federal Education Department's recent push to enforce laws that require public disclosure of such crimes and civil rights protections for victims and witnesses.
The department is investigating whether Mr. Paterno and other Penn State officials violated the reporting and disclosure requirements of one of the laws, known as the Clery Act. Separately, the scandal puts Penn State on the radar of the department's Civil Rights division, which this April issued a tough letter to all 6,000 colleges and universities that accept federal money, spelling out how they must handle cases of sexual violence under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act to prevent the creation of "a hostile environment" for accusers that would violate equality of access to education.
"Obviously, when things of this nature come to our attention, we have a duty to look into the matter," Russlynn Ali, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights, said of the Penn State scandal.
The law that first demanded colleges disclose potential crimes dates to 1990 and has been amended several times to close loopholes. Named after Jeanne Clery, a student murdered in her dorm room at Lehigh University in 1986, it requires the reporting of crimes to law enforcement agencies and the publication of crime statistics.
Paul Verrecchia, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, defended the professionalism of campus officers, who, just like other police officers, he said, "raise their hand and swear to uphold the laws and protect the Constitution." Local law enforcement officials can also be influenced by the power of the university, he added.
Alison Kiss, the executive director of Security on Campus, a national watchdog organization based in Wayne, Pa., also praised campus police forces for strides made since the law was enacted. But when a university culture demands silence, she added, the campus police come under great pressure to follow suit.
"Most want to do the right thing, but it's very difficult when you're not supported," she said.
Ms. Kiss was not surprised by the news of Mr. Paterno's failure to take further action in the Sandusky case, she said, because she has dealt for years with complaints of sexual assault against football players at big sports schools, where the disciplinary result is often a brief suspension or probation, not expulsion.
The Arizona State case illustrates the possible consequences. A student raped in her dorm room in 2004 learned that the accused football player had been expelled from a summer program for threatening, grabbing and sexually harassing several women on campus. He had been readmitted within weeks at the insistence of his coach. The student sued the university for violating her Title IX rights by creating a "hostile environment," and in 2009, a court settlement forced university officials to pay the petitioner $850,000, appoint a student safety coordinator and overhaul its policies on sexual assault.
Marquette is under investigation by the Education Department for possible violations of the Clery Act, apparently in connection with a case in which four athletes accused of sexual assault were said to have met with the coaching staff to discuss the episode before they were interviewed by campus police. And according to the local district attorney, the campus police never told local law enforcement or prosecutors about the case, or about a second sexual assault complaint against another athlete five months later.
In two cases — one at Dominican College in Orangeburg, N.Y., in 2006 and another at Notre Dame in 2010 — freshman women committed suicide after their complaints of sexual assault against athletes were mishandled.
Both schools ended up paying fines for federal law violations and promised to overhaul their policies. "There exists a culture of entitlement for athletes or teams," Ms. Kiss said. "I'm certain it's a culture that doesn't only exist at Penn State."