Pennsylvania State University now a leader in Clery compliance

Gabriel Gates is the Penn State official in charge of ensuring compliance with federal law on reporting campus crime. Officials inside and outside the university say it has come a long way since the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Gabriel Gates is the Penn State official in charge of ensuring compliance with federal law on reporting campus crime. Officials inside and outside the university say it has come a long way since the Jerry Sandusky scandal. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 23, 2013

The call came in to Gabriel Gates early Thursday from one of Pennsylvania State University's branch campuses: A wallet with $10 was missing from a common area in one of the buildings.

Did the school have to issue a "timely warning" to students and staff about the apparent theft, the employee wanted to know. Timely warnings are required by a 1990 federal law known as the Clery Act in cases where there is an ongoing threat to the campus community.

Gates, Penn State's official in charge of monitoring compliance with the law, said a warning was not necessary. If a pattern developed, that could trigger the need for a warning, he said.

It was a very low-level problem for a university that has found itself under fire over the last 15 months for failing to report one of the most serious of crimes - child sex abuse.

But officials inside and outside the 96,000-student university say the school has come a long way since Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, was charged in November 2011 with abusing boys on and off campus, and the school's top leaders were forced out and charged with failing to report the crimes and lying about their actions to a grand jury.

Although Penn State remains under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for failure to follow the Clery Act in that case, the university has upgraded training for employees, standardized reporting across campuses and departments, and increased vigilance in monitoring compliance, officials say.

"Typically, when you have an investigation of a possible violation, there's always immediate attention to it, and after that, it dwindles," said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, based in Wayne. "I haven't seen that in this case. I'm very happy to see, a year and a half later, it still very much appears to be a priority."

The Clery Act is named after Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University freshman raped and murdered in her dorm room in 1986. It requires universities to disclose all sexual assaults, murders, robberies, and other crimes on and around campus. Campuses must issue alerts, publish annual reports, and maintain a daily crime log.

Penn State has not finished compiling numbers for 2012, but Gates said reports were up because of heightened vigilance across the university's 24 campuses.

"People are reporting everything now. I mean everything," Gates said in his office at Penn State's main campus in State College.

One day last week, he fielded questions about a "burnt sticky pad that could possibly meet the definition of arson."

Gates, 29, a Cambria County native with a bachelor's degree in forensic accounting and expertise in helping large institutions improve the efficiency and effectiveness of systems and internal controls, is at the center of the university's efforts.

Before coming to Penn State, he was a compliance auditor with the Department of Defense's Naval Audit Service for six years and most recently a financial compliance analyst with Maersk Line, a container shipping company based in Norfolk, Va.

Since he was hired last March, nearly 4,000 employees have been trained, including police, deans, coaches, and advisers to clubs and activities - all considered mandated reporters of crime or "campus security authorities" under the act. Penn State also requires that all campus security authorities take annual retraining online to keep procedures fresh in their minds.

"We can't expect or ask our employees to do something if they aren't completely comfortable with how to do it and that they'll be protected once they do it," he said.

The school included in its policy whistle-blower protection for employees who report crime and standardized reporting forms.

If a residence hall adviser overhears students talking about a sexual assault, he or she must report it even if the victim does not wish to press charges and no other details are available, he said.

"We would include that in our annual security report, and a lot of people really struggle with that," Gates said.

But unless officials are absolutely sure the claim is baseless, it has to be reported and recorded, Gates said. He says he assures the employee that the victim can remain anonymous.

The university issues timely warnings in cases of homicide, sexual assault, and robberies. Other crimes, such as aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, hate crime and arson, sometimes result in a warning, depending on circumstances, Gates said.

Penn State finds itself in the unusual position of having gone from potentially one of the worst violators of the Clery Act to a leader in compliance.

"We've got to be at the top of that pile just because of everything we've done over the last year," said David M. Joyner, Penn State's athletic director.

Joyner said he advised staff and coaches that they need to "operate at the very highest level" and report all crimes. Employees have embraced that mandate, he said. Gates recalled that football coach Bill O'Brien sat front and center at one of the 45-minute training sessions and asked questions.

Gates said he had received nearly two dozen calls from universities around the country, public and private, large and small, seeking advice on upgrading procedures and details on his job description. Many universities have relied on police to oversee Clery compliance, but now are looking at Penn State's model.

The university hired Margolis, Healy & Associates, a Richmond, Va., consulting firm that specializes in campus security, to help it prepare its 2012 annual crime report. Penn State reported 24 on-campus forcible sex offenses in 2011, including 11 that occurred in previous years connected to the Sandusky case but were first reported in 2011. A forcible sex offense can range from rape by a stranger to an improper touch. That's up from four cases in 2010 and eight in 2009.

Gates said almost all incidents involve acquaintances rather than assault by a stranger.

Gates hopes the Education Department will note the university's efforts when issuing its final recommendations. The university could face fines up to $27,500 per incident and possible loss of federal aid including grants, loans, and work-study payments.

Department officials said last week that the investigation was continuing and offered no comment or deadline. But Keith Masser, new chair of the university's board of trustees, said Friday that he expected to have the department's report by the board's next meeting in March.

Gates said his biggest challenge had been standardizing procedures across such a large system with more than 33,000 full- and part-time employees.

"We're always implementing new things as far as policies and procedures, and how do you roll that out to all locations properly?" he said. "That's something we'll always battle as long as we're an institution of this size."


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq

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