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Penn State scandal spurred Michigan to report old sex allegations

July 15, 2012|By Matt Pearce | This post has been corrected, as indicated below.
  • Jerry Sandusky is led from the courthouse after he was convicted of molesting 10 boys.
Jerry Sandusky is led from the courthouse after he was convicted of molesting… (Gene J. Puskar / Associated…)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Penn State isn’t the only university that’s had a problem reporting sex crimes.

Here in Ann Arbor, in December, federal prosecutors charged Stephen Jenson, a resident physician at the University of Michigan hospital studying pediatrics, with possession of child pornography.

Yet a co-worker had reported seeing the child porn six months earlier. The co-worker briefly caught a glimpse of what she thought was child pornography on a computer Jenson had been using in a medical residents' lounge. She told a supervisor, who then told another supervisor, who told another official and so on and so on, until at least eight Michigan employees knew about the child porn allegations.

After a series of misunderstandings and confusion over who was responsible for the case — and a lack of clear evidence beyond the woman’s allegation — no one reported Jenson to the police.

In November, as students rioted at Penn State University over coach Joe Paterno’s firing in the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the first hospital supervisor who had heard about Jenson started raising a question: Why hadn’t anything happened to Jenson?

Hospital officials huddled again and police were contacted a week later, and an investigation began in earnest.

Since the news of the university's initial failure to report the child porn allegations to the police, the Department of Education has been looking into whether the university violated federal law requiring them do so, according to an AnnArbor.com report.

At issue is the Clery Act, which requires that university officials publish information about crimes people report to them, not just the incidents that prosecutors decide are crimes. The university previously violated the Clery Act for misreporting weapons arrests and drug crimes in 2008.

The details of the allegations against Jenson, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, were made public in February as part of an internal investigation conducted by the University of Michigan after public outrage when news of the delay trickled out. Although the details of the Michigan case and the Sandusky case differ wildly, they offer parallel glimpses of institutional failures when it comes to universities reporting sex crimes.

"The original incident rose and fell in the medical school silo within the university," Michigan professor Karen M. Staller writes in a new study of institutional sex abuse for Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies, an academic journal. "The matter was not referred to general university officials or outside agencies. Medical schools, housed on university campuses, are powerful and isolated fiefdoms."

Universities are not supposed to hide crimes, but schools had a such a poor history doing so that in 1990 Congress passed the Clery Act. The law is named after 19-year-old Jeanne Clery, who was raped and killed in her Lehigh University dorm in 1986. Her family later discovered that the university hadn’t told students about other violent crimes on campus.

The Sandusky case has renewed focus on those laws after former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s report on the university’s actions revealed its “awareness and interest” in Clery Act compliance was “significantly lacking.” Penn State is currently under investigation by the Department of Education for possible Clery Act violations, and the Clery Act can mean big fines and even suspension of federal financial aid for universities.

Sandusky was convicted of molesting 10 boys over 15 years. The report said Penn State’s most senior officials showed disregard for Sandusky’s victims and failed at least twice to act on accusations of sexual misconduct because they feared bad publicity for the university.

Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, told the Wall Street Journal that several schools had contacted the center for help on Clery Act policies, but that a lack of compliance was widespread. Ten schools have been fined a total of $1.4 million for Clery Act violations since 2007, an Office of Federal Student Aid spokesman told the Associated Press.

But outside of the Clery Act, sex crimes frequently test the capabilities of law enforcement. Rapes are widely thought to be underreported because of the stigma and fear felt by victims, and cases involving children — such as at Penn State — often mean victims who can’t advocate for themselves, which places even more responsibility on authorities who have the power to do something.

“Institutional systems [such as universities] can change if protecting children is a priority,” Michigan’s Staller writes in her study. “It would help if instead of exhibiting shock and disbelief, we started generalizing the lessons learned from one kind of institutional setting to the next, because the behaviors employed by those who sexually exploit children remain the same.”

[For the record, 5:10 p.m., July 15: An earlier version of this post said Michigan prosecutors had charged Stephen Jenson with possession of child pornography. The charges were brought by federal prosecutors.]

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