Michigan State, feds resolve Nassar civil rights probe
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reached an agreement with Michigan State University that federal officials said will prevent the sort of sexual abuse inflicted on women athletes at the school by Dr. Larry Nassar.
The university agreed to designate an official to coordinate accepting, investigating and resolving discrimination complaints, under two sections of federal law, according to the agreement announced Monday.
The school also will establish a chaperone policy, which requires members of a health care team to attend sensitive medical examinations. Patients are allowed to request chaperones based on gender.
“This is a heartbreaking case in which a person used his position of authority as doctor to commit heinous crimes against women and girls, and you heard about their stories and their courage in coming forward,” said Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS.
“Hopefully, we move forward, and it’s a model as to what proper policy should be, so that something good can hopefully come out of this tragic situation, where a change is made, and it can be used for others to follow.”
MSU also agreed to provide patients with “an appropriate gown, privacy for undressing and dressing, and sensitive draping to maximize physical privacy, when conducting sensitive examinations.”
The university agreed to conduct training and provide reports to HHS twice per year.
The three-year agreement is between the Office of Civil Rights in HHS and Michigan State; the MSU HealthTeam, which is a medical practice that includes 250 doctors, nurses and assistants at 40 clinics; and MSU Health Care Inc., a nonprofit, multi-specialty group practice of the colleges of Human Medicine, Osteopathic Medicine and Nursing.
“Perpetrating and tolerating sexual abuse of patients is not only a heinous breach of trust, it’s against federal law,” said Severino, who was appointed by President Donald Trump.
“While Nassar and the dean who oversaw him have been rightly convicted of crimes, the institutional reforms that MSU has agreed to undertake will help ensure that no patient is ever victimized like this again.”
While MSU had announced it would implement a chaperone policy, the agreement gives the practice the force of law.
An Okemos-based lawyer for 111 of Nassar’s victims said that while the agreement seems like the basis for an enforcement program that should have been adopted decades ago, it has always been the primary priority of many of the victims to codify some sort of remedy, to prevent future exploitation, assaults and victims.
“It seems to me that they are attempting to get commitment from MSU to enforce basic, very rudimentary, 101 course-level medical procedures, to put it frankly,” said David Mittleman.
“Foremost in the minds of all the girls and young women ... They weren’t focused, at least initially on money damages, they were focused on getting things to change and making sure this did not happen again.
“They wanted this to be a platform, if you will, for this should never happen again, and how to handle a situation when confronted with it,” Mittleman said.
“In other words, there were opportunities in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2014, 2015 to have stopped this. But at every turn, the victim was not listened to, and only collectively were they heard and some action taken.”
If the university and the associated entities are determined to be out of compliance during the course of the agreement, the potential penalties include the termination of federal health and education assistance, Severino said.
“It’s one thing for an institution that has failed repeatedly to police itself to say they are going to do better this time,” he said. “Compared to the federal government, with the ability to strip federal funds in the case of repeated noncompliance, coming forward and saying you must now actually implement a proper chaperone policy, consistent with best practices.
“And we, the federal government will be monitoring, and making sure through follow-up, that it is actually being enforced.”
For not enforcing a chaperone policy that MSU had said it initiated to monitor Nassar, in part, a former university official received a jail sentence last week.
William Strampel, former dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, was sentenced to 11 months for misconduct in office, a felony, and to a year in jail for two charges of willful neglect of duty, both misdemeanors, in Ingham County Circuit Court.
The jury had determined there was enough evidence to support prosecutors' argument that Strampel displayed "complete indifference" about whether Nassar followed protocols intended to stop his alleged sexual assaults.
Nassar, who turns 56 Friday, is serving 60 years in prison on federal child pornography charges, 40 to 175 years on seven state charges of sexually assaulting minors and 40 to 125 years for three state charges of sexual assault.
The two state sentences run consecutively to the federal sentence.
“While the justice system has worked and continues to work its way through the process, we at the Office of Civil Rights at HHS wanted to do whatever we could under our legal authorities to make sure nothing like this would happen ever again,” Severino said.
“Although the large majority of our cases are driven by complaints, we saw the press coverage and we as an office thought we would do whatever we could under our legal authorities to see if we could address this problem.
“So we began a compliance review of MSU on our own initiative," he said. “And if there was ever a case for enforcement, this was it.”
Pamela Barron, the deputy director of the HHS Office of Civil Rights, said the agreement provides strong, enforceable protections.
“As the mother of a daughter who is a Division I college athlete, I am extremely gratified that the Office of Civil Rights is focused on making sure that this never happens again,” Barron said.
“Nassar was very much an equal opportunity abuser. The tragedy is that in 2014, there was a complaint at the university and the dean did not insure that anything changed,” she said. “That will change now with this voluntary resolution agreement.”