PULLMAN, Wash -- The U.S. Department of Education slapped Washington State University with $82,500 in fines Friday for violations of a federal crime reporting law in 2007, but the university will appeal the sanctions.
"We think the fines are excessive," WSU spokesman Darin Watkins said.
He also said the university takes strong exception to the department's charge that student and employee safety was jeopardized by the reporting errors under the federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or the Clery Act.
"We believe in what Clery is all about, and the purpose of Clery, and we strive really hard to meet all of those obligations," Watkins said. "But we disagree with the assertion that the errors identified in this report endangered WSU students and employees. This is more about how the crimes were characterized, not how the crimes were handled."
The U.S. Department of Education detailed the fine in a letter to WSU President Elson Floyd on Friday, more than five months after federal education officials completed an investigation of WSU's campus crime statistics.
The government acknowledged in a report sent to Floyd in March the university has made improvements to its crime reporting since the incidents, but the report says those corrective measures do not diminish the seriousness of the violations.
WSU was one of several universities found in violation of the Clery Act this year. The federal law requires campus notification of potential threats to students and employees.
Earlier this year, Virginia Tech was fined $55,000 for failing to quickly alert the campus during the 2007 mass shooting that killed 32 students and faculty members. Virginia Tech is appealing. Virginia's attorney general called the fine "absolutely appalling," but the federal officials said it should have been higher.
Federal education officials audited the campus crime statistics at about a dozen schools this year, including Washington State. Some of those schools remain under investigation and could also be fined. Violations of the Clery Act are investigated by the student aid office of the U.S. Department of Education, and punishment may range as high as suspension of federal financial aid payments to a university.
At issue for WSU are two cases. In one, a student initially reported a domestic violence issue before alleging her husband had been drugging and raping her. Watkins said police followed up on the case, but classified the case as "unfounded" when the victim could not be located.
But a board of auditors enforcing the Clery Act found the university should have reclassified the domestic violence case as a rape case.
In the other case, a female student alleged she had been raped in a campus residence hall. After an investigation, it was determined the allegation was unfounded. But the classification was made by a WSU records manager instead of a law enforcement official, a violation of the Clery Act, the board found.
Watkins said WSU Police Chief Bill Gardner took away that authority from records managers even before the board conducted the audit in 2009.
The Department of Education levied a $27,500 fine for each of those cases, plus another $27,500 fine for not including required policy statements in its reports. The government did acknowledge the university has made improvements to its crime reporting.
WSU has until Sept. 12 to file an appeal, or request a hearing.
"We've historically been, and we remain, a very safe campus," Watkins said. "We just disagree that these errors identified in the report in any way endangered WSU students or employees."
A University of Idaho official said the Moscow school believes it is in full compliance with Clery Act requirements.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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