February 25, 2014 at 11:29 pm

Feds probe MSU, U-M sex case responses

Former U-M kicker Brendan Gibbons was arrested in the case but not charged. (Mark Bialek / Special to the Detroit News)

The University of Michigan and Michigan State University are under scrutiny by federal officials who are investigating how alleged sexual assaults were handled at the state’s two largest universities.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights confirmed it is investigating two complaints of sexual violence allegations at MSU, and one complaint at U-M.

The investigations came as students marched on U-M’s campus Tuesday, protesting the university’s handling of sexual assault investigations; federal officials will visit MSU’s campus this week to meet with students on the issue.

Besides U-M and MSU, more than three dozen complaints against universities’ handling of sexual assault are being investigated by federal officials nationwide, said Jim Bradshaw, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

It is unclear which cases are involved in the two complaints lodged against MSU.

The U-M investigation involves the alleged rape of a student by former U-M football player Brendan Gibbons in 2009, according to activist Doug Smith, who filed a 2013 complaint and was notified of the investigation Monday. Smith’s complaint with the Office of Civil Rights said U-M had refused to investigate the case. It was combined with another case.

“(The Office of Civil Rights) has determined it is appropriate to proceed to investigation on the following issue: that the university failed to promptly and equitably respond to complaints, reports and/or incidents of sexual violence of which it had notice, and, as a result, students were subjected to a sexually hostile environment,” the office said in a letter to Smith.

Gibbons, who could not be reached, was arrested in 2009 but never charged. He was expelled by U-M in December for violating the university’s sexual misconduct policy in connection with the 2009 incident, according to a report by the Michigan Daily, U-M’s student newspaper.

U-M officials said they stand behind their actions.

“We’re very proud of our student sexual misconduct policy, our prevention efforts and our programs to support survivors of sexual misconduct,” said Rick Fitzgerald, U-M spokesman. “We will fully cooperate with the Department of Education and we believe that a review of our policy, programs and investigations will conclude that the University of Michigan is doing what it should in this important area.”

MSU officials said they responded “fully and appropriately” to the incidents.

“While federal law and privacy concerns prevent MSU from fully discussing specifics, we have a comprehensive record of the actions we took that supports the university’s position that we acted appropriately,” MSU spokesman Kent Cassella said. “We look forward to continue working with the OCR on this matter.”

The investigations at U-M and MSU come nearly three years after Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unveiled guidance for colleges and universities to comply with Title IX, the federal civil rights law, in responding to sexual assault on campus. Last month, President Barack Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

The investigations at the Michigan universities coincided with a protest Tuesday at U-M by students upset by the administration’s handling of the Gibbons case and other sexual assault allegations. Students and activists marched across campus to the U-M administration building to show officials they were upset with how sexual assault cases have been handled internally.

“The university could have communicated this a lot better to the student body,” said Joel Reinstein, an MSU graduate who lives in Ann Arbor and was involved in the U-M protest. “We suspect the reason they didn’t was because they didn’t want the scandal to be any bigger and threaten their profits from the football team.”

U-M head football coach Brady Hoke said Tuesday night after the teams first spring practice that he was not aware of a student protest on campus and restated that he is prohibited from speaking on the matter publicly.

"Like I said before, I ... believe me ... I can't say anything," Hoke said. "You know, I don't like that (not commenting), But I can't."

Officials from the Office of Civil Rights will be on MSU’s campus Wednesday and Thursday to hold focus groups and meet with students during office hours.

“This is clearly an issue that we take seriously,” said Paulette Granberry Russell, Title IX coordinator and director of MSU’s Office for Inclusion & Intercultural Initiatives. “Clearly, it is an issue that the U.S. Department of Education and Office for Civil Rights takes very seriously. To the extent that we are partnering and cooperating with them speaks volumes to our commitment to student safety, particularly around sexual assault.”

Meanwhile, Smith said he is pleased federal officials will be investigating.

“I hope they investigate some of the broader issues that the Gibbons case raises,” Smith said. “She may have been one example of a policy of discouraging victims from reporting. It may be that there were perpetrators who had repeat offenses that should have been dealt with.”

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