The apparent failure of anyone to properly report allegations that Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted a 10-year-old boy in 2002 could be a unique violation of a 1990 federal law requiring universities to document crime.
The U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether Penn State University authorities broke the law, called the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act.
The law was named for a Lehigh University student who was raped and killed in 1986.
Under its provisions, universities nationwide have been found in violation and fined for a variety of failures to report, including six just this year. But none of them has had to deal with the kind of firestorm Penn State now faces.
"There have been other Clery Act cases, but this would be precedent-setting," said S. Daniel Carter, policy director for Security on Campus, a watchdog organization Clery's parents founded in 1987. "We've never seen a case like this."
At issue is Penn State's Clery Act policy in 2002. That year, according to a state grand jury, Sandusky was discovered having sex with a 10-year-old boy in a shower at the university's football complex.
Sandusky had retired as Penn State's respected defensive coordinator in 1999, but he was allowed to keep his access to the Lasch Football Building.
According to the grand jury presentment, then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary saw the assault and told football coach Joe Paterno, who in turn told athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, who then told Graham Spanier, the school's president.
But no one ever called police, which was required under Penn State's own rules and still is.
"Based on the grand jury presentment, there is certainly evidence that there was a violation," Carter said.
He also cautioned, however, that Penn State may have some leeway because Schultz, in his position as head of business and finance, ultimately oversaw the police department.
"That's why the Department of Education has to do its own investigation," Carter said.
The Penn State scenario is far different from most campus sex crimes, which typically involve one student reporting an assault by another.
This one involves an eyewitness to an alleged child assault by a powerful authority figure, yet apparently no one thought of contacting law enforcement directly or immediately.
"I think one of the biggest takeaways from this is that it is important that institutions mind their own procedures," Carter said. "If what the grand jury presentment says is correct, I don't believe that Penn State followed its own procedures."
His statement echoed that of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said Wednesday that school officials "have a legal and moral responsibility to protect children and young people from violence and abuse."
Although the Penn State-Sandusky case is unusual, other big schools have run afoul of the Clery Act's reporting requirements.
Washington State University, Oregon State University, Lincoln University, the University of Northern Iowa, the University of Vermont and Yale University all face fines for findings released in 2011.
Virginia Tech was also fined $55,000 this year for failing to quickly alert the campus during the mass shootings in 2007 that left 32 people dead, although the school is appealing that penalty.
The largest fines ever administered under the Clery Act were imposed on Eastern Michigan University in 2008. The school was fined a total of $357,000 for not properly notifying the campus community in 2006 that authorities were investigating the death of a student, Laura Dickinson, as a murder.
Violations of the Clery Act are investigated by the student aid office of the Education Department. The penalties range from a fine of up to $27,500 for each violation to suspension of federal financial aid to the school.
No school has ever had its financial aid severed because of a Clery Act violation.
(Contact Torsten Ove at email@example.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)