WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Department of Education investigates whether Penn State University might have broken federal law in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, legal experts say the university also might have violated civil rights laws designed to protect students and others from sex discrimination.
If the university is found in violation of the law, Sandusky's alleged victims could seek damages, these experts said, and Penn State would have to pay millions to settle a case that's already cost the university its reputation and its head football coach and president their jobs.
This week, a group of nine civil rights organizations, led by the Women's Law Project, sent a letter to the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights requesting a review of Penn State's compliance with Title IX, the 1972 law that barred sex-based discrimination on college campuses. Court cases have found that sexual assault fits the definition of sex discrimination, and the group said that the Sandusky case raises troubling questions about whether the university treats student athletes and athletic officials more favorably in cases of alleged sexual assault.
"Penn State must be held accountable and must be required to take corrective action to prevent and promptly address sexual harassment and violence on its campus and of its students," said the letter, dated Dec. 12, and addressed to Russlynn Ali, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for civil rights. "This is true for any children who were (allegedly) victims of a senior athletic department staffer and for others victimized by student athletes."
The letter highlights Penn State as an example of the failure of institutions across the country to comply with Title IX's requirements that students and others on college campuses should not be subjected to a hostile environment created by sexual assaults.
"We want to make sure universities have proper procedures for dealing with sexual assault," said Terry Fromson, the managing attorney for the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia. "There may be a problem at Penn State that's worth looking into."
Penn State University's public affairs office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
In April, the Education Department sent a letter to colleges and universities that receive federal funding making clear that the schools have a legal obligation to act promptly in cases of sexual assault that take place on campus.
Sandusky is charged with abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period, in some cases on Penn State's campus. Sandusky, who retired as an assistant football coach in 1999, continued to have a title and an office, and had access to campus athletic facilities.
According to the state grand jury report that led to Sandusky's indictment in November, several university officials, including head football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier, knew something about Sandusky's alleged crimes but failed to stop them. The university fired Paterno and Spanier in the wake of the charges.
Penn State's Judicial Affairs Office is supposed to handle complaints of assault by students and determine the appropriate punishment, but the letter from the Women's Law Project cites several cases in which university athletic officials intervened, resulting in more favorable treatment for accused student athletes.
In one case, a football player who admitted to sexual assault was suspended for two semesters, yet was allowed to play in a bowl game during his suspension. Another football player who faced sexual assault allegations avoided suspension by agreeing to stay away from football facilities.
"When there is a complaint by someone that they have been sexually assaulted by an athlete, it's incumbent to make sure there's no influence by the athletic department," Fromson said. "The Sandusky allegations point to the question of athletic officials improperly handling complaints of sexual abuse."
The Department of Education wouldn't comment on the letter, referring to a November statement by Education Secretary Arne Duncan launching an investigation into whether Penn State violated the Clery Act, a federal law that requires universities to report crimes that take place on campus. The statement also said, "the Office for Civil Rights will also assess whether further investigations or enforcement actions are warranted."
Deborah Brake, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said there's "a very plausible legal case" that Penn State violated Title IX and will have to pay damages.
But there are uncertainties, she said. The alleged victims weren't Penn State students. They were participants in a charity program Sandusky founded. But Sandusky brought his alleged victims to campus, and some of the alleged assaults took place in university athletic facilities.
"It's uncharted territory," Brake said.
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