By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney
Two years ago, the Women’s Law Project and nine other organizations committed to the enforcement of Title IX sent a letter to then-Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali requesting that the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) perform a compliance review of Penn State under Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to take steps to prevent and remedy the effects of sexual harassment and sexual assault so that students are not denied access to an education. Last week, on January 23, 2014, Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, announced in a letter to Rodney Erickson, the President of Penn State, that OCR will finally examine the University’s handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints.
The advocates’ letter, dated December 12, 2011, was signed by the Women’s Law Project, California Women’s Law Center, Legal Voice, Equal Rights Advocates, Equity Legal, National Women’s Law Center, Legal Aid Society—Employment Law Center, Women’s Sports Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and the Southwest Women’s Law Center. The advocates’ request came in response to reports that the University had failed to respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The advocates specifically requested a review of Penn State’s policies and procedures relating to sexual harassment and violence and its handling of past student complaints of such misconduct by student athletes in light of evidence that Penn State, like other universities, has applied a double-standard in its disciplinary process that unduly favors student athletes who have been accused of sexual misconduct.
In making this request, these ten organizations explained that “based upon our work and experience, we are concerned that many schools do not have adequate procedures in place or ignore these procedures when athletes or other athletic department personnel are involved.” The request was consistent with OCR’s “Dear Colleague Letter” of April 4, 2011, which stated that school sexual harassment and sexual assault policies and procedures “must apply to all students, including athletes” and that complaints implicating student athletes “must not be addressed solely by athletics department procedures.”
As explained in the December 12, 2011 letter, and further discussed in the Women’s Law Project’s report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women, research has shown that a disproportionately high percentage of perpetrators of sexual assault on college campuses are male student-athletes, who may be benefitting from school disciplinary systems that are skewed in their favor. The advocates attached to their request a statement by Vicky L. Triponey, the Former Vice President for Student Affairs at Penn State University (2003-2007), in which she explains that the President of the University and the Head Football coach participated in discussions about how to handle complaints against football players, ultimately resulting in “accommodations that put us in the position of treating football players more favorably than other students accused of violating the community standards as defined by the student code of conduct.”
OCR must hold Penn State accountable for any deviation from its obligations under Title IX to address and prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault, including harassment and violence perpetrated by student-athletes. Hopefully, OCR’s scrutiny of Penn State’s policies and practices will improve the safety of the campus and ensure that its students will receive the educational opportunities that brought them to Penn State in the first place.