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Feds: MSU counselor accused of sexually harassing students kept job 4 more years

Sep 2, 2015

Credit MSU

This story was updated with a response from MSU at 5:05 pm on 9/2/15

Students started complaining about sexual harassment from a Michigan State University counselor – who was at times working with students seeking sexual assault counseling – back in 2009.

Michigan State University’s response was to hold a meeting between one of those students and the counselor.

“Which was obviously jarring to the student who had complained,” says Catherine Lhamon, the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education. “That student was not the only student who had complained in 2009.”

But Lhamon says there is no record of MSU taking any disciplinary action against this counselor, until more students, and even staff members, came forward over the years.

"There was a four-year period in which that counselor was able to continue sexually harassing students who were coming forward."

“Ultimately, starting in 2013, that counselor no longer works for MSU,” says Lhamon. “So there was a four-year period in which that counselor was able to continue sexually harassing students who were coming forward, to allege that they had been harassed and needed help.”

More fallout from the MSU investigation

Federal investigators originally mentioned this counselor in their 42-page, four-year-long investigation into how MSU handles sexual assault complaints, which was released Tuesday.

  

It was one of the worst incidents of MSU failing to take sufficient action against someone suspected of sexual harassment, according to the report:

“The most troubling example of this was a university counselor who allegedly sexually harassed students who sought counseling services after being sexually assaulted. The university received a complaint against this counselor, but initially took no action against the counselor until additional complaints were filed.”  

At first, MSU says it "immediately" removed counselor 

But MSU administrators fired back at this part of the report.

In a press call with reporters just hours after the report was released on Tuesday, deputy general counselor Kristine Zayko said the Office of Civil Rights got it wrong.

Kristine Zayko is deputy general counsel for MSU.
Credit Michigan State University

“When OCR did its review for the employment cases, they didn’t actually investigate the university’s handling of those cases,” Zayko said. “Rather, they looked at files that were provided to them, but they did not ask any questions or gather additional information. So from our perspective, we really don’t agree with the way that those cases have been characterized. We didn’t have an opportunity to discuss them with OCR."

“With respect to that particular case … what I can say is that when the director of the counseling center became aware that a complaint had been raised, that individual was immediately removed from all contact with students, and all clinic responsibilities while the University investigated the matter.”

Zayko says once that investigation finished, the employee was fired.  

Now MSU says the current leadership didn't know about past complaints 

On Wednesday, Michigan Radio reached out to the Office of Civil Rights and presented them with MSU’s version of events.

That was when Lhamon, the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Civil Rights, told Michigan Radio additional details that investigators had about the counselor, which weren’t included in Tuesdays’ report.

That included the 2009-2013 timeline, as well as the meeting held between the counselor and one of the students who’d complained.

“It’s obviously a very, very troubling story to hear about a student going to seek counseling for sexual assault, and being subjected to further sexual harassment,” Lhamon said. “What we learned in the files is that it was more than one student who was subjected to that.”

Late Wednesday afternoon, Michigan State University's communications office forwarded the following statement from Kristine Zayko: 

"The university’s comment made yesterday focused on the response of the current leadership of the Counseling Center when several student concerns were raised in late 2012/early 2013.  Assistant Secretary Lhamon is correct that one student expressed concern about a “creepy” and inappropriate line of therapeutic questioning in 2009.  Other incidents that happened prior to 2013 were not revealed to the university until the 2013 investigation began; there were not ongoing complaints being made to MSU officials during that four-year period.  During the course of the 2013 investigation, several individuals then disclosed incidents that happened during the 2008-2009 academic year.  Although the Counseling Center acted quickly to remove the counselor from all clinical duties and student contact when the concerns were raised in 2013, any period of time during which a counselor sexually harassed students was too long.”

Office of Civil Rights: MSU ultimately has "the right leadership" 

But ultimately, Lhamon says the example of this counselor is one small part of the lengthy investigation, and that she and the Office of Civil rights are confident that MSU is on the right track.

“I think that MSU has the right leadership and the right commitment to move forward, in ways that I’m very excited about,” says Lhamon.

“There’s more than 50,000 students on campus every year who will benefit from that leadership, and from the commitments that MSU has now made with this resolution agreement, and I think that’s terrific and sets absolutely the right tone for the campus.”

This story was updated at 5:05 pm on 5/13/15