Michigan State University wants to prove it takes sexual assault issues seriously. After a year in which a former MSU sports doctor was arrested and accused of sexually abusing at least 120 women and girls, and three former football players were charged with sexual misconduct, the school brought in a law firm to review its Title IX policies and procedures.
In part 1 of that report, which was released Monday, those attorneys say MSU looks good on paper. Their Title IX policies are up to snuff with expansive federal regulations, the report finds, and compare well with other Big 10 schools.
Hayley Hanson, a partner at Husch Blackwell, says in talking with staff, faculty and students at MSU, she found both a “genuine commitment” to getting this right – as well as a lingering “skepticism.”
“What we found during our interviews were that there is still a lot of talk of the past, and things that have been in the news. And that was, in some respects, playing a role in the perceptions of the current policies and procedures,” she says.
“MSU’s community, the ones we were able to speak with, were focused on moving forward…but understanding that there are issues that have come up in the media that need to be addressed by its community and culture so that they can move forward,” Hanson said.
In recent years, federal criticism of MSU's handling of sexual assault cases
In the last few years, MSU’s Title IX practices have been criticized by federal investigators, who found in 2015 that the school’s “failure to address complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence in a prompt and equitable manner caused… a sexually hostile environment for numerous students and staff on campus during the years covered by [the Office of Civil Rights] investigation, 2009 to 2014.”
Later that same year, a Michigan Radio investigation revealed investigations into harassment and assault at MSU can drag on for up to 9 months, rather than the 90 days students were told to expect at the time. (Now MSU says investigations should generally take 60 days.) It also found a pattern of sudden and unexplained reversals, in which MSU would hire an outside law firm to completely redo an already finished investigation, sometimes handing down a completely different finding than what the school’s investigators and appeals boards decided. That not only confused and frustrated students, it contributed to some staffers’ decision to resign. (Since then, the school says it has beefed up its Title IX staff significantly, with 16 full time staff members and 9 investigators.]
An alleged predator, missed by MSU in 2014
Lastly, the school’s Title IX investigation cleared Dr. Larry Nassar of wrongdoing in 2014, after a student complained the sports doctor sexually assaulted her during a treatment. As a result, the student says she was told she’d misunderstood Nassar’s medical procedures.
And in July of 2014, Bill Strampel, the dean of MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, sent Nassar an email confirming that in the future, Nassar would have a chaperone in the room with him, he would avoid “skin to skin” contact in sensitive areas as much as possible, and when necessary, explain sensitive procedures in detail to patients.
In an email, Dean Strampel also told Nassar that “new people in our practice will be oriented to be sure they understand these requirements.”
But it appears those requirements were never enforced. Multiple girls say they were abused by Nassar after that 2014 investigation. None of them were told about the new safety policies Nassar was supposed to abide by.
Since then, MSU says it’s made improvements to patient safety policies. And in the current Title IX review released today, Husch Blackwell attorneys found most faculty and staff are pretty clear about the requirement to report any possible sexual abuse.
Who's responsible for enforcing the rules and what happens if they don't?
“That’s been a big push to make sure that that message is continually delivered in a variety of fashions, so that everyone understands,” Hanson says. “And we found from the faculty and staff meetings that we had, that that message is coming across: they are responsible employees, they must report.”
In their review, Hanson and her partners found that:
“Under Title IX, a school has notice of sexual misconduct if a responsible employee ‘knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care should have known.’ …Responsible employees are those: (1) who have the authority to take action to redress sexual misconduct; (2) who have been given the duty of reporting incidents of sexual misconduct or any other misconduct by students to the Title IX Coordinator or other appropriate school designee; or (3) who could reasonably be believed to have this authority or duty.”
Michigan Radio asked MSU spokesman, Jason Cody, if those requirements applied to Dean Strampel – and if so, had Strampel violated the school’s Title IX policy?
“As Dean Strampel is a named defendant in ongoing litigation [between alleged victims of Larry Nassar and MSU,] it is inappropriate to comment on your questions,” he said in an email Monday.
Have the problems been fixed?
Asked how MSU had improved its Title IX policies to avoid clearing alleged abusers in future investigations, Cody sent the following statement:
“As we have discussed before, including last week: The premise of your question implies that mistakes were made in the 2014 Title IX investigation and conclusion. I don’t necessarily agree. Now, there have been significant changes to the Title IX policy since 2014, many of them outlined in our resolution agreement with OCR. Also, we review the policy every year and make revisions. It is not a static document. Also, the health policies you mention are outside of the Title IX process; more information on them can be found at https://msu.edu/ourcommitment/patient-safety/.”
In March of 2017, months after Nassar was arrested and facing criminal charges, a new Title IX investigation into Nassar found he "engaged in sexual harassment in violation of the University's Policy on Sexual Harassment."
In the second part of their Title IX review, Hush Blackwell says it will review “the effectiveness of MSU’s broader Title IX program, including with respect to crisis and advocacy support services, prevention and education programs, and awareness and outreach efforts. We anticipate the delivery of the second report by the end of Spring Semester, 2018.”
However, MSU says it has no plans to release its internal investigation into who knew what about Dr. Nassar during his time at the university.