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UM, MSU revise policies on sexual misconduct inquiries

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Revised Title IX policies went into effect Friday at Michigan's two largest universities, changing how incidents of sexual misconduct will be investigated.

Michigan State University and the University of Michigan implemented the changes in compliance with updated federal regulations.

In this June 22, 2018 file photo, more than 300 teal and silver pinwheels, which represent the survivors of Dr. Larry Nassar sexual assault , are displayed in front of the Hannah Administration Building at Michigan State University.

At the University of Michigan, which is dealing with complaints of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct by the late sports doctor Robert Anderson and former Provost Martin Philbert, the school's new interim policy on sexual and gender-based misconduct includes "common definitions" for prohibited activity, spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said.

The school will have separate procedures for addressing allegations against students and those against employees and third parties. The revised UM policy also "further clarifies" available confidential resources and ways to report misconduct. 

“Improving how we prevent and address sexual and gender-based misconduct in our community must always remain a foremost priority at UM,” said President Mark Schlissel. “We strive to do better, always, and creating an umbrella policy that covers all members of the UM community is one key measure we are implementing."

Officials at MSU, which dealt with hundreds of sex assault allegations against convicted pedophile Larry Nassar, also announced a revised policy.

“We took this as an opportunity to create a policy that strives for clarity and important supportive measures that increase equity, accountability and transparency for all involved in the Title IX process,” said Tanya Jachimiak, associate vice president of MSU’s Office for Civil Rights and Title IX Education and Compliance, in a letter to campus. “Our commitment to ensuring a campus free of violence remains unwavering.”

MSU's new policy defines prohibited activities which are "in alignment with community expectations as to what constitutes relationship violence, sexual misconduct and stalking as well as prohibited conduct under Title IX."

The revised policy "makes clear that Title XI regulations apply to complaints brought by or against employees and are not limited to complaints involving students."

MSU's revised policy permits all parties to review all evidence directly related to rape allegations before a final investigative report is completed.

The policy, according to MSU officials, also "sets expectations for University faculty, staff, and academic staff on reporting misconduct."

In May, the U.S. Education Department finalized campus sexual assault rules that bolster the rights of the accused, reduce legal liabilities for schools and colleges, and narrow the scope of cases schools will be required to investigate.

In announcing the regulations, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wrote, "Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault. This new regulation requires schools to act in meaningful ways to support survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process."

But critics of the new rules argue that some provisions allow perpetrators to block "damning" evidence against them. Critics also object to a mandate that both accusers and the accused undergo live cross-examination, saying that can be traumatic for sexual abuse victims. 

Kevin Sutton, CEO and managing partner of Lusk Albertson, a Detroit-based law firm that specializes in public educational law and represents school districts throughout southeast Michigan, said Friday the impending legal issues from the changes in the Title IX regulations also impact K-12 schools as well.

"The (changes) are to get everybody on board ... on the same page," he said. "There's a balancing act going on here."

Sutton said the changes, the first to the law since 1997, include requiring that schools name Title IX coordinators, provide grievances procedures and lower barriers to reporting complaints.

"It's all about bring some formality to the process," he said.