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Federal inquiry spells more grief for Penn State

- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2011

As federal investigators launch a probe of Penn State University, the school could face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for its handling of alleged sexual abuse scandal involving former coach Jerry Sandusky.

The Education Department's Office of Federal Student Aid is now looking into possible violations of the Clery Act, a 1990 law which requires all universities receiving government aid money to report all campus crimes. The department's Office for Civil Rights could initiate "further investigations" in the coming months, the department said in a statement Wednesday night.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the situation "a horrible tragedy," and said Penn State and other schools have "a legal and moral responsibility to protect people from violence and abuse."

The scandal has already claimed university President Graham Spanier and iconic football coach Joe Paterno, both of whom were fired Wednesday night in a controversial move which led to riots in State College, Pa.

Penn State officials were formally notified of the probe Wednesday.

Since 2001, there have been more than 40 Clery Act investigations, including a high-profile probe of Virginia Tech following the mass shooting on campus in 2007.

Earlier this year, the Education Department levied a $55,000 fine against the school for its violation of the "timely warning" provision, which requires campus law enforcement to inform students as quickly as possible when they may be in danger.

In December 2007, Eastern Michigan University was fined $357,000 for its handling of a suspected murder in a campus dorm room. The Education Department blasted school officials for initially telling students there was no foul play suspected, despite the fact that authorities were investigating the case as a homicide.

Penn State officials, including Mr. Paterno, have come under fire for not doing enough to prevent the alleged sexual abuse by Mr. Sandusky. Regardless of exactly what they knew and when, campuses typically err on the side of caution and release information immediately rather than subject themselves to Clery Act investigations by remaining tight-lipped, said Christopher G. Blake, associate director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

"Campuses are putting something out as soon as possible, even if they don't have all of the comprehensive information," Mr. Blake told the Washington Times on Thursday. "You want to be able to tell people what to do to protect themselves, but if you're dealing with partial or sketchy information, that can become very problematic. There are a lot of situations where the professional judgment [of campus law enforcement] comes into play."

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