Michigan State University’s inability to head off a serial sexual abuser illustrates the danger of allowing colleges to handle sex assault cases internally, without involving outside law enforcement agencies.
At MSU, a woman associated with the athletics program in 2014 told campus police that MSU physician Larry Nassar touched her breasts and genitals during examinations for back pain.
Similar charges have been brought by more than 100 women and young girls, many of whom were treated by Nassar during their involvement with the MSU gymnastics program.
The police complaint led to a Title IX investigation, a process intended to determine whether the university violated federal guidelines against sex discrimination.
In the end, both the campus police and the Title IX investigators decided that Nassar’s unorthodox treatment fell within acceptable medical practices.
Of course it didn’t, as we now know. But neither the campus cops nor the Title IX compliance officers were equipped to make that call with any expertise. Had the case been handled by an outside police department independent of the university the evidence might have been viewed more clearly, and Nassar’s abuse would not have been allowed to continue for another nearly two years.
A second 2014 complaint against Nassar, made by a gymnast to an MSU staff doctor, was also referred to the colletge Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, the office that investigates campus sexual assault allegations under the Title IX federal law.
An office whose mission is primarily promoting campus diversity seems hardly the place to handle a criminal investigation.
And that’s what sexual assault is: a crime.
It is the same crime whether it occurs on campus or in a dark alley, and should be treated as such.
Universities, which have leeway in their campus assault policies, should not have the option of investigating such crimes internally, or referring them to a campus police department that has a vested interest in protecting the image of the school.
As soon as a criminal sexual assault complaint is filed, local or state law enforcement agencies should be brought on board to fully participate in the investigation.
That didn’t happen at MSU.
And as a result, Nassar was allowed to molest additional girls and young women.
Federal, state and campus policy regarding sexual assault should change to treat it as the serious crime it is, and assure that it is probed by experienced, professional investigators independent of the university.