Penn State denied students access to campus crime data. A student wants a federal investigation.
This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.
STATE COLLEGE — Nick Rizzio wanted to know why Penn State was sending fewer crime alerts. He had anecdotes. He had emails. He had theories.
But he needed data.
In 2021, the year Rizzio became a resident assistant in a Penn State dorm, the university’s “timely warnings” system to notify the campus community of serious threats felt like a mainstay in student life. Phones buzzed. Emails pinged. Black ink on bright, lime green paper hung near building entrances detailed the incidents. A student at the time called the warnings “overwhelming.” Fed up with the university’s handling of sexual violence, more than 100 students marched across campus in protest.
But in the semesters since, the seeming deluge of notifications slowed to a trickle. University policy did not change. And Penn State’s latest security report shows that many crimes increased between 2021 and 2022.
So why, the 22-year-old wanted to know, were there fewer notifications?
“We had all those timely warnings and, as far as I can tell, the only difference between then and now is that the university is not telling us,” Rizzio said.
Federal law requires universities that receive federal student aid to keep their campuses informed about crime. Widely known as the Clery Act, the law mandates that universities share certain crime data with the public, document incidents in a publicly available log, and notify their campuses when there are ongoing threats.
The law and regulations span tens of thousands of words across dozens of pages, but Rizzio is particularly interested in a compact sentence near the end about the crime log: “The institution must make any portion of the log older than 60 days available within two business days of a request for public inspection.”
To get an answer, Rizzio sent a certified letter in September to Penn State’s Clery Act compliance coordinator requesting such data.
Weeks passed. No response.
While he waited, Rizzio asked the federal government to intervene. In his email to the U.S. Department of Education last month, he alleged “repeated and ongoing violations of the Clery Act by The Pennsylvania State University.”
His experience is not isolated. In his complaint to federal authorities, Rizzio attached evidence that two other students were denied access to the historical data this year. A U.S. Department of Education employee, in emails shared with Spotlight PA, told Rizzio the agency is “reviewing” his claims and later asked to meet with him.
The alleged oversights might be small compared to the seriousness of the crimes described by the data, but the statute is clear, Rizzio says, and he thinks the university’s seeming inability to comply indicates larger problems — especially given the university’s history with the Clery Act.
Spotlight PA requested to interview a Penn State employee about the university’s efforts to comply with the federal regulations. The Office of Strategic Communications directed the newsroom to a campus police webpage about the law.
In a statement, a spokesperson told Spotlight PA that Rizzio and the other students should have received access to the data, and that university employees are working “to correct any misunderstandings” about how student requests for crime data should be handled. (Read the university’s full response here.)
Penn State’s Clery Act compliance unit, housed within campus police, is “dedicated to transparency and abiding by the requirements of the Clery Act,” the spokesperson said. “With an organization as large as Penn State, many of these requirements include multiple departments and offices, such as gathering information for the Clery unit and fulfilling records requests.”
The university claims Rizzio’s certified letter, which was addressed to the university’s Clery office, was never delivered to that unit. But the U.S. Postal Service confirmed that the letter was delivered to the recipient on Sept. 13.
A Department of Education spokesperson, in an email to Spotlight PA, said the department does not comment publicly on potential violations or oversight activities.
Action by the agency could be another mark on an already checkered history with the Clery Act at Penn State.
Clery at Penn State
More than a decade ago, as the public demanded answers about the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, four specialists from the U.S. Department of Education arrived at Penn State’s University Park campus on a Monday morning in November 2011.
The federal team, Penn State was told, needed immediate and unrestricted access to 13 years of university files — including crime reports, training materials, property records, and university contracts.
While the federal officials spent months poring over the documents and interviewing employees, Penn State hired Gabriel Gates to develop a training program and oversee compliance with the Clery Act. Gates told university trustees in November 2012 that Penn State sought to “exceed the requirements” of the law. A few months later, the Philadelphia Inquirer called the university a “leader in crime-rule compliance” in a front-page headline.
According to two major investigative reports, that had not always been the case.
The Clery Act was signed into law in 1990. According to the Freeh Report, commissioned by the university Board of Trustees and released in 2012, Penn State between 1991 and 2007 delegated Clery Act compliance responsibilities to a campus police employee who was not formally trained. University leaders did not begin writing a formal policy on the law until April 2009. By November 2011, when news of the Sandusky scandal broke, that document was still a draft.
The U.S. Department of Education investigation — the report for which was made public in 2016 — found that between 1998 and 2011 Penn State repeatedly failed to properly record crimes or notify the campus community of them. The discrepancies, investigators wrote, suggested “a severe administrative impairment” and “deprived the members of the Penn State campus community of vital safety information that would have empowered them to make informed decisions about their own safety.”
“Many officials, including [Penn State Police] officers, tried to sound the alarm but were, for the most part, ignored,” the report said.
The federal government’s findings carried a then-record $2.4-million fine. The university did not contest the final report and paid the penalty.
A 2017 report by former Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale found the university improved on a few fronts, noting that it had begun filling compliance-related positions, creating an emergency messaging system, and posting safety information online.
DePasquale told Spotlight PA that each university audit his office conducted included a review of the institution’s Clery Act policies and practices. The recommendations his report offered to Penn State — such as standardizing the crime reporting system across campuses — resembled those his office made to other schools.
A Penn State spokesperson said the university uses a standardized reporting system across its Commonwealth Campuses but did not say if it conducts internal Clery Act compliance reviews, another recommendation from the former auditor general.
The spokesperson initially declined to comment on the question and repeatedly referred Spotlight PA to a May 2017 statement, which did not provide the requested information.
“We do not plan to continue to respond to a report that is now six years old,” the spokesperson initially told Spotlight PA. “We provided a university response at the time and that has been previously shared with you.”
Federal program reviews, like the one conducted on Penn State in 2011, are the main way the U.S. Department of Education enforces the Clery Act, said Abigail Boyer, associate executive director of the Clery Center, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that helps organizations follow the law.
Complaints, media coverage, and problems flagged during internal audits are some of the catalysts for federal reviews, according to the U.S. Department of Education website.
However, a large number of institutions receive federal student aid, which lessens the likelihood of a federal review, said Steven Healy, CEO of the Healy+ Group, a compliance consulting firm that includes institutions of higher education. Facing these odds, some universities shift resources to other areas and bet against coming under review, he said.
The crime data requests
The basis for Rizzio’s speculation — the falling number of timely warnings while campus crime numbers held steady — is largely supported by publicly available information.
Spotlight PA asked Penn State to provide the total number of timely warnings issued at its University Park campus for 2018 through 2023. The university ignored this request.
Emails shared with Spotlight PA show that Penn State sent more than 30 timely warning notifications in 2021 for University Park. In 2022, that number dropped to 16, and as of Nov. 3, there have been 10 such notices in 2023, according to the university’s website and a Spotlight PA analysis. Spotlight PA tracked the warnings by calendar year to avoid confusion with where to categorize notifications sent during Penn State’s summer sessions. The newsroom asked Penn State whether it would be better to present the figures by calendar year or academic year, but the university did not respond.
The reported number of some Clery-specific crimes at or near University Park increased between 2021 and 2022 — including reports of rape (48 to 59), fondling (27 to 34), aggravated assault (7 to 19), burglary (9 to 13), and stalking (30 to 33) — according to the university’s Clery Act-required annual security report.
Rizzio requested the historical crime data to compare it with criminal complaints and docket sheets from the local court. He sought to track a case from the campus crime log using the incident number to see whether a timely alert was sent or an arrest was made. Then he hoped to follow court outcomes and map the campus crimes by location and type.
For the most part, criminal complaints and court dockets are publicly available, but Rizzio needed Penn State to provide historical campus crime data.
In September, he sent the university’s compliance coordinator a certified letter requesting roughly four years of data. The breadth of the request was large, Rizzio said, so he essentially waived the federally mandated two-day deadline and gave the office 25 calendar days to respond.
When he got no response, he changed his approach. Rizzio could have flagged the issue internally, but he said the university has previously paid noncompliance fines and he felt Penn State does not seem interested in self-policing.
A Penn State spokesperson, in a statement, said, “There is an interest in developing relationships where community members like Mr. Rizzio feel comfortable bringing concerns to the Compliance office, providing an opportunity for improvement.”
The spokesperson added that the university’s Clery Act compliance unit “designated much of its time this past summer to training University Police Officers and other UPPS employees across the state to improve their understanding of the Clery Act.”
Emails attached to Rizzio’s federal complaint show that in 2023 two other students were denied access to the University Park crime log beyond the most recent 60 days that Penn State posts online.
In September, a student requested roughly four months of 2023 crime data. “The crime logs are available for 60 days prior to the current date,” an unnamed Penn State campus police employee responded by email. “Those are the only logs available to the public.”
Spotlight PA spoke with one of the students referenced in Rizzio’s complaint. The student confirmed basic details about the situation but asked not to be named due to fear of retaliation from the university.
A Penn State spokesperson told Spotlight PA that the students’ email requests for campus crime data should have been granted. However, the spokesperson said Rizzio’s certified letter never arrived.
“The request that was sent to the department from Mr. Rizzio via certified mail was never delivered to the university’s Clery Office, and it is uncertain where the letter ended up, although it was tracked to having been signed for at the State College Post Office,” the spokesperson wrote. “Had that letter been received at [campus police], the request would have been accommodated at that time.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service reviewed the tracking information for Rizzio’s letter and confirmed that it was delivered to University Park on Sept. 13.
To answer questions about Rizzio’s situation, a Penn State spokesperson asked Spotlight PA to provide a copy of the federal complaint. (The newsroom provided Penn State with the redacted version also made available to the public.)
The following business day — nearly 30 business days after his initial request — Rizzio received an email.
“I recently became aware that you requested the daily crime log information,” a campus police employee wrote on Oct. 23. “... Attached is a PDF containing the requested information.” (Access the records here.)
Rizzio, just weeks away from graduation, plans to meet with a Department of Education official on Tuesday.
SUPPORT THIS JOURNALISM and help us reinvigorate local news in north-central Pennsylvania at spotlightpa.org/donate/statecollege. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability and public-service journalism that gets results.