Bill ties federal funding for universities to accountability for sex abuse cases

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

A bipartisan group of lawmakers reintroduced legislation in Congress Monday aimed at holding universities that receive federal funding accountable for sexual abuse cases involving employees.

U.S. Reps. Elissa Slotkin, Fred Upton and Lisa McClain and Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow reintroduced the Accountability of Leaders in Education to Report Title IX Investigations (ALERT) Act. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Illinois, also signed onto the legislation.

The act would require university leaders to submit an annual certification to the U.S. Secretary of Education acknowledging that the school's president, or similar official, and at least one member of the school's governing board have reviewed all sexual abuse investigations that were reported to the Title IX coordinator that year involving an employee.

The certification also would require leaders to confirm that the president and board members had not interfered with or inappropriately influenced any of those ongoing investigations.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin

"Culture is set from the top, and on a college campus, the senior administrators need to be fully informed about allegations of sexual harassment and assault by any and all university employees," said Slotkin, D-Holly. "We can’t let ignorance be an excuse ... We need to have university leaders who act to protect the health and wellbeing of their students, and this bill will help guarantee that no university president can claim ignorance of a potential sexual predator in their employment.”

Upton, R-Kalamazoo, added that the act is important to ensure reports of sexual misconduct reach key university leaders.

“We should be doing everything we can to protect student safety on college campuses. Our students deserve nothing less,” said Upton. “The bipartisan ALERT Act is an important step forward, ensuring university leaders are informed of incidents of sexual violence on their campus. Those reports can then be addressed quickly and in the correct manner.”

The bill was introduced twice previously but never got out of committee. 

Initially, Peters, Stabenow and Cornyn introduced the bill in 2018 in response to Michigan State University's handling of the Larry Nassar scandal that began in 2016 when one woman publicly accused the now-incarcerated sports doctor of sexual abuse. Hundreds of women later came forward and shared similar allegations. MSU officials said they weren't aware of Nassar's behavior but reports showed that 14 MSU representatives were aware of it in the two decades before his arrest. 

Colleges and universities that receive federal funds are required to establish procedures for responding to instances of sexual violence on campuses under Title IX. Schools must also have a Title IX coordinator to oversee investigations, coordinate disciplinary actions, and ensure compliance with federal guidance.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters

But lawmakers said these mechanisms are not enough and pointed to instances where university leaders have failed to take action even after they were made aware of complaints, such as in the case of Nassar and late sports doctor Robert Anderson at the University of Michigan.

"The excuse of ‘I didn’t know’ can never be used again by university leadership — they have a solemn responsibility to protect students,” said Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. “Survivors, their loved ones and our higher learning communities deserve better.”

McClain, a Bruce Township Republican who serving her first term and is assigned to the House Labor and Education Committee that oversees higher education issues, called what happened at MSU a "tragedy."

“When we send our kids to college, we do so with the expectation that the institution they attend will provide safety and security on their campus. Our youth should never be taken advantage of, especially by those in a position of power at a university. Many colleges and universities do a great job at this, but we need to ensure those that fall short are held accountable,” McClain said.

The ALERT Act is supported by the American Association of University Women and the National Women’s Law Center.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com