In 2002, when a Penn State University football standout was accused of a dorm-room rape, the details were easy to come by.
After all, the alleged assault became a national news story when coach Joe Paterno allowed the accused cornerback to suit up for a postseason game despite the pending criminal charges.
The only place the curious couldn’t find notice of the case was Penn State’s federally mandated campus crime report.
It was never listed, even though that was required by federal law (the player was ultimately acquitted). In fact, the university reported no sexual assaults involving students on or off campus that year.
“It was an obvious error and could not be correct,” said S. Daniel Carter, then a senior vice president for the Clery Center for Security on Campus. “I personally knew of other incidents that had been reported in 2002.”
The incident is just one example of what former FBI Director Louis Freeh described in a report issued last month as the university’s consistent and at times systematic failure to follow the Clery Act, a federal law requiring universities to provide accurate reports of crime on their campuses.
If true, those shortcomings are likely to loom large in the U.S. Department of Education’s probe into Penn State’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case—an investigation that some campus security experts have described as the Education Department’s largest Clery investigation to date.
In November, the department requested a host of documents from Penn State, including logs of all crime reported to any campus security authorities from 1998 to 2011.
Should Penn State be found in violation, it could face fines of up to $27,500 per incident as well as a possible loss of federal aid including grants, loans and work-study payments.
A department spokeswoman refused to discuss the current status of the investigation.
But Carter, the campus safety advocate who now works for a Virginia-based family outreach center, suspects that Penn State’s eventual fines could exceed the largest Clery penalty ever assessed—the $350,000 paid by Eastern Michigan University after administrators there intentionally mischaracterized the 2006 murder of a student in her dorm room as a death by natural causes.