Women’s Law Project Leads Call for Review of Penn State University’s Handling of Allegations of Sexual Assault and Violence

In the wake of the recent disturbing reports that Penn State University failed to properly respond to allegations of sexual abuse by a former assistant football coach, the Women’s Law Project (WLP) spearheaded a group of civil rights organizations, including the National Women’s Law Center, ACLU-PA, Women’s Sports Foundation, Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, California Women’s Law Center, Legal Voice, Equal Rights Advocates, Southwest Women’s Law Center, and Equity Legal, in requesting the Office for Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Education (OCR) undertake a Title IX compliance review of how Penn State University handles allegations of sexual assault and violence, particularly when such allegations are lodged against athletes and athletic department staff.  The OCR is an agency tasked with ensuring equal access to education, which includes investigating and resolving compliance issues and complaints of discrimination.  A primary tool of the OCR is a compliance review, a process by which the OCR can target its resources and proactively take steps to focus on specific compliance problems that are particularly acute or national in scope. 

In the letter submitted last week on behalf of ten civil rights organizations, WLP requested that the OCR enforce its requirement that schools adjudicate sexual harassment and violence complaints on an equal and consistent basis.  The organizations’ request referenced a statement in the OCR’s recent April 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter which stated no preferential treatment would be given to athletes in such circumstances, providing that “[i]f a complaint of sexual violence involves a student athlete, the school must follow its standard procedures for resolving sexual violence complaints.  Such complaints must not be addressed solely by athletic department procedures.”   

Given the shocking allegations made against Penn State regarding its purported failure to sufficiently respond to reported child sexual abuse perpetrated by a member of its athletic department, this request for the OCR to conduct a thorough and comprehensive review of Penn State’s procedures is not only timely, but essential.  Indeed, in their letter to the OCR, the civil rights groups cited disturbing statistics regarding the frequency of sexual assault by student athletes in general, and significantly, point out numerous red flags with respect to Penn State’s poor track record in this area.  Specifically, the groups cite several examples of publicly available information that highlight incidents suggesting special treatment and slaps on the wrist for athletes committing sexual assault and violence.  The letter also calls for routine reviews to assess whether schools across the country respond differently to complaints of sexual harassment and violence when athletes and athletic department staff are implicated.

Please visit http://www.womenslawproject.org/ for more information.

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The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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