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Sexual assault investigations at MSU: a broken system, and the efforts to fix it

Nov 9, 2015

Sixty days.  That’s how long universities are supposed to take to investigate sexual assault cases.

But at Michigan State University, those investigations can drag on for seven, eight, even nine months.

A recent federal report slammed MSU for taking too long to resolve sexual assault cases.

But a Michigan Radio investigation has found the problems at MSU go far deeper than that. 

Students who come forward may have their cases reopened or even overturned, either because administrators don't trust the process or because investigators make mistakes.  A repeat offender can stay in the MSU community for years, simply because the process takes so long.

And some students and staff feel the university waited too long to seriously address these issues, despite knowing for more than a year now that federal recommendations for sexual assault investigations weren't being met. 

Part I: Shayna’s case

At this point, Shayna is really tired of talking about what happened to her. 

Not just her alleged rape, but the whole maddening, dysfunctional process that MSU dragged both her and the accused student through, for nearly a year and half.

But she says, that's exactly why she has to keep talking about it.  

“I guess it has me pretty terrified, and scared for other MSU survivors who do report,” she says.  

Because of the sensitivity of Shayna’s case, we’re only using her first name.

On Valentine’s Day of 2014, she filed a sexual assault complaint with MSU, saying she’d been raped by a fellow student the previous year.

Here’s what MSU told her was supposed to happen next. An MSU investigator would have 90 days, according to MSU’s own policy at the time, to interview witnesses and write a report. (Federal guidelines say those investigations should normally take just 60 days, and MSU updated its policies in 2015 to align with that.)

If that investigator found a sexual assault did occur, there’d be a hearing to determine sanctions. Either student, Shayna or the accused, could appeal.

But here’s what actually happened after Shayna reported.

MSU took 8 months to investigate Shayna's case. Not 90 days, like MSU’s own rules said. Eight months.

First, MSU took eight months to investigate Shayna’s case -- not 90 days, like MSU’s own rules said -- eight months.  

The Title IX investigator concluded that Shayna had been assaulted, “including penetration...without her consent.”

There was a hearing.

“I had to face him, in a room,” Shayna says. “It was recorded, and lasted, I think, three or four hours.”

The decision: the male student should be expelled.

He appealed, saying MSU’s investigator made mistakes. He alleged the investigator failed to interview all the witnesses, and he claimed the school was biased against him because he’d previously been the subject of another sexual misconduct complaint.

But the appeals board disagreed, finding “no procedural errors” occurred.

The expulsion was upheld. 

Finally, 13 months after Shayna filed her complaint, it looked like the whole ordeal was over.

And then, on March 23, 2015, Shayna got an email in the middle of class.

"I feel compelled to return this matter for additional investigation," Maybank told Shayna in an email. "The University will retain an independent investigator."

The email was addressed to both her and the accused student: “Dear Shayna and [name withheld,] like we were dating or something,” Shayna says. 

It was from Vice President of Student Affairs, Denise Maybank, who has final oversight over the student conduct process.

Vice President Denise Maybank, Center.
Credit Mackenzie Mohr

Maybank wrote she was concerned about the “alleged errors” the accused student had raised.

But Vice President Maybank did not explain why, if the appeals board had already looked into those alleged errors and found they didn’t occur, she still felt they were unresolved.

Did the appeals board miss something? Was there a problem in the original investigation after all? That was never explained to Shayna.

All Maybank said in the email was that she felt “compelled to return this matter for additional investigation.”

Maybank hired the law firm of Warner, Norcross and Judd to completely re-do the investigation into Shayna’s alleged rape.

Several current and former MSU staff members say they were shocked, and angry, at the decision to reopen Shayna’s case, 13 months after Shayna reported her alleged rape, and after an eight-month investigation, a hearing, and an appeal.

“You can’t change midstream,” says Lauren Allswede, who was a sexual assault counselor at MSU for seven years, until she left this summer. “I mean, you can’t change the process in the middle of an investigation. That’s not fair to any of the parties involved.”

Allswede wasn’t the only staff member who felt Maybank’s decision undercut MSU’s own process.

Shayna remembers getting a call from Amanda Garcia-Williams, the MSU Title IX investigator who was in charge of her case.

After four years as a Title IX investigator at MSU, Garcia-Williams had decided to leave the university.

“I was really worried because I thought it was me – like, are you leaving because of me?” Shayna says she asked Garcia-Williams “And she’s just like, ‘I think that the stuff like this, is not being handled properly.’ She didn’t really like how MSU was handling sexual assaults.”

We asked Garcia-Williams to comment on Shayna’s recollection of this phone call. She declined.

The second investigation – and a final determination

So in the spring of 2015, more than a year after she filed a complaint with MSU, Shayna once again finds herself answering questions about the night she was allegedly raped.

Except this time, it’s with a couple of strangers from the law firm of Warner, Norcross and Judd.

“I didn’t really understand that they wanted to talk in such detail about what had happened to me, because I had already reported this to MSU.  So just having to re-go through everything, and having them ask me, ‘Do you remember what you were wearing?' Or, me telling a part of my story, and them asking ‘Well why would you do that? Like, what was the thought process of you doing this?’”

When she walked out of that room, Shayna says she hit a new low point in the whole process.

“I just remember kind of coming out of there, and just kind of feeling that victim-blame to myself, like you’re right, I am stupid. Like, why did I do this?  Maybe I shouldn’t have done these things, or said these things. Like, maybe that would have not happened if I had not done that," Shayna says, through tears. 

“Um. Yeah. But I just definitely felt like really, uh, re-traumatized.”

The firm of Warner, Norcross and Judd conducted numerous interviews, including with Shayna and the accused student. The accused student denied ever having any kind of sexual contact with Shayna.

In their final report on May 11, 2015, the firm of Warner, Norcross and Judd concluded that while Shayna and the male student did engage “in sexual contact/intercourse on the night in question (despite the continued denials of Mr. [name withheld]) we cannot find” that the sex was non-consensual.

The results of MSU's own investigation, the hearing board, and the appeals board's decisions were overturned. The accused student graduated, and received his diploma from Michigan State University.

The results of MSU’s own investigation, the hearing board, and the appeals board’s decisions were overturned.

The accused student graduated, and received his diploma from Michigan State University.  

Despite a 90-day investigation policy, staff knew “the norm” was far longer

Shayna’s case took nearly a year and half.

And while MSU says it has only brought in an outside law firm for two cases in the last five years, it’s not unusual for sexual assault cases to drag on far longer than MSU’s own policies say they will.

“Most of the people I worked with, their investigations were nine months, a year, longer than that,” says Lauren Allswede, who was a sexual assault counselor at MSU until this summer. “That was the norm, to take more than 90 days.”

"Most of the people I worked with, their investigations were 9 months, a year, longer than that. That was the norm, to take more than 90 days."

But when students would report their cases to MSU, the Title IX office (then called the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, now called the Office of Institutional Equity) would tell them: their cases should take just 90 days.

“When the investigation actually takes a year…then I think people feel re-victimized like that, like they were duped,” Allswede says.

"Like it wasn't actually a safe process, it wasn't informed consent. Even though it's outlined in a policy, a lot of times it doesn't follow what the policy says." 

Part II: Elizabeth’s and Meg’s cases

Elizabeth was a visiting faculty member at MSU in the winter of 2013, when her ex-boyfriend (a Ph.D student and Teaching Assistant at MSU) broke into her apartment. Elizabeth says he attacked her new boyfriend, while she locked herself in the bathroom and called the police.

Elizabeth got a restraining order against him. He was charged with felony home invasion, and later pled guilty in court to misdemeanor breaking and entering. 

Credit Photo Courtesy of MSU

But even though Elizabeth told other faculty members in their department about the break-in and criminal charges, the man continued teaching undergrads as a TA for the rest of the spring semester.

That was long enough for him to meet Meg. She was an undergrad in one of his classes that semester.  

They began dating.  After they broke up, they continued to have a personal relationship. That's when Meg says he sexually assaulted and harassed her.

“I was terrified all the time,” says Meg. “I'd go to work [on campus] and he'd be right next door to where I was. Or I’d go to class, and he’d be in the same building as me.”

Meg told one of her professors she was scared of this guy. And the professor, who also knew Elizabeth, connected the dots.

He told Elizabeth that the same man who’d broken into her apartment, was now allegedly harassing another woman at MSU.

“I spent a lot of time thinking, if I had done something differently, if they had done something differently, would he still be in the class, would he still have access to undergrad students?” Elizabeth says. "And I spent a lot of time blaming myself for that." 

She encouraged Meg to report her complaints to MSU’s Title IX office.

Meg agreed, and in October 2014, Elizabeth went with her to meet with MSU’s Title IX office.

MSU opened investigations into both Meg and Elizabeth's cases against this man.  

And the Title IX office told them, these investigations should normally take 90 days.

In reality, Meg’s investigation took seven months.

In June 2015, while the investigation was still ongoing, Meg's mom sent an angry email to MSU President Lou Anna Simon about how long it was taking. 

President Simon apologized via email on June 3, 2015 saying she was surprised to hear this. 

"I was surprised and disappointed to learn that the investigation has not yet been finalized," President Simon wrote to Meg's mom on June 3, 2015. "This lengthy delay does not represent my expectations for how investigations will be conducted and resolved."

Later that same day, MSU's Title IX office emailed Meg to tell her their investigation was complete.  

Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s investigation took nine months.

MSU's investigators found that the same man had sexually harassed, but not sexually assaulted, both women.

He's been given a sanction of dismissal. 

But he's appealed. 

And even now, a year after they reported their complaints to MSU, both Meg’s and Elizabeth’s cases are still dragging through the appeals process.

Which means the man is still a Ph.D candidate at MSU. 

To make matters worse: Meg got an email from the Title IX office this summer, saying part of a case involving her was being re-opened.

Why? Because investigators hadn’t interviewed all the witnesses.

“I was so, so angry when I got that email. It felt like a slap in the face to me,” Meg says.

"I don't currently feel MSU is a safe environment to me. I hope to go back somebody and finish my degree. But right now, that just doesn't seem like the best option."

As the investigation unfolded this year, Meg says she was struggling with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.

She withdrew from several of her classes. She moved back in with her parents.

“I don’t currently feel as though East Lansing is a safe place for me, or that Michigan State is a safe environment to me,” Meg says.  “So we will see. I hope to go back someday and finish my degree because that’s important to me. But right now, that just doesn’t seem like the best option.”

Investigators drowning in work, as federal investigation loomed

Meg says the sheer dysfunction of MSU's process wasn't something she saw coming when she first reported her case.

Because in the beginning, she really felt comforted by MSU's response. 

MSU had a whole team of support services for her: the domestic violence advocate at MSU’s Safe Place, who personally helped Meg get a restraining order.

The MSU Police Detective who would email Meg every few months, just to see how she was holding up.

And most importantly, the Title IX investigator who listened to her, made her feel heard, like her case was important.

"It started making me feel a lot better, that I didn't have to feel alone anymore," she says. 

But what Meg didn’t know then, was that MSU’s Title IX investigators were seriously understaffed.

At the time, MSU had just two full-time investigators. 

MSU had just 2 full-time investigators, handling 100 sexual misconduct complaints in a year, 32 of which required full-blown investigations.

According to MSU’s most recent Annual Sexual Misconduct Report, those investigators were fielding nearly 100 sexual misconduct cases between August 2013 and August 2014. Of those cases, 32 required full-blown investigations.  

On top of that, the Title IX investigators also handled every other type of discrimination case – including sexual orientation discrimination – and were required to conduct numerous Title IX workshops on campus for athletic teams, resident advisors, and other groups.

They were drowning in work.

And sources with knowledge of the Title IX office say there was never a clear answer from MSU as to why more full-time investigators weren’t being hired, even as administers knew they were blowing past investigation deadlines.

Meanwhile, political pressure on that office was building.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights was investigating MSU after two students filed complaints about how MSU handled their sexual misconduct cases (neither of which involved Shayna, Meg or Elizabeth.)

Staffers were hearing rumors about what the federal investigation was finding – and it wasn’t good.

“A sexually hostile environment existed for…numerous students and staff”

In September, the Office for Civil Rights issued a 42-page report on MSU’s handling of sexual misconduct cases:

"...OCR determined that a sexually hostile environment existed for and affected numerous students and staff on campus...and that the University's failure to address complaints...in a prompt and equitable manner caused and may have contributed to a continuation of this sexually hostile environment."

“…OCR determined that a sexually hostile environment existed for and affected numerous students and staff on campus at the University…and that the University’s failure to address complaints…in a prompt and equitable manner caused and may have contributed to a continuation of this sexually hostile environment.”

On a conference call with reporters that day, MSU President Lou Anna Simon said, yes, MSU could have done better. 

“If you’re a student, an individual employee, who’s experiencing sexual harassment, sexual assault, something covered by Title IX, for those individuals, obviously, we could have done better. But I think anybody could say that. And we are doing better,” Simon said.

MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon
Credit MSU President Lou Anna Simon / File photo / MSU

This year, MSU brought the number of full-time Title IX investigators up from two, to four. A fifth investigator will be hired this month.

The person who was in charge of the Title IX office has been moved to a different role. 

Now there’s a new Title IX coordinator, and a new director whose job is solely to oversee investigations, in what's now called the Office of Institutional Equity. 

MSU has also created new policies to try and speed up the investigations and appeals process. The Office for Civil Rights found that even MSU's 90-day investigation timeline was too long, and MSU has shortened that timeline to 60 days. 

But the Vice President of Student Affairs can still throw out MSU’s investigations and appeals decisions.

Michigan Radio asked to interview MSU officials, including Vice President Denise Maybank, but they declined.

With more staff and new policies, MSU trying to get a difficult process right

Meanwhile, our sources say things really are getting better. There’s more staff, more follow up, more speed.

But current and former staff say they still don’t understand why it took so long to make these changes.

But staff say they still don't understand why it took so long to make these changes. Because the problems - the long investigations, the mistakes, the unexplained changes, the lack of man power - those things were never a secret inside MSU.

Because the problems – the long investigations, the mistakes, the unexplained changes, the lack of man power – those things were never a secret inside MSU.

Lauren Allswede, the former MSU sexual assault counselor, left this summer after 7 years with MSU.

“It’s made me really sad over the years, to question whether I’d encourage someone to come forward,” she says.

But she’s hopeful the process truly is getting better.

She sees the good work going on at MSU.

She just wants people to understand, it’s a really difficult process to get right – but she says, schools have to get it right, for students who’ve been through sexual assault.

“They should be able to go to school without fear. To be able to live in your dorm safely, to go to classes safely. I want people to experience that. I also want them to know the risks of what happens if they report, so that they can make an informed decision,” Allswede says. 

"It's made me really sad over the years, to question whether I'd encourage someone to come forward."

Up until now, those risks have been significant. 

Students who come forward to report sexual misconduct at MSU were essentially given the run around. They were told it would take 90 days to investigate their cases, when staffers knew it would likely take far longer.  

Those same students have also had to deal with their cases being suddenly reopened or re-investigated, and even overturned, with little explanation. 

And at least in the case of Meg and Elizabeth, a repeat offender has been able to stay on campus for years - simply because MSU's process takes so long.

Now, MSU is working to reduce those risks.