Bill seeks university accountability for abuse cases

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Legislation to be introduced Thursday in the U.S. Senate would require the leadership of universities and colleges that receive federal funds to personally review sexual abuse investigations of campus employees.

The bill, sponsored by Michigan Democratic Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, as well as Texas Sen. John Cornyn – the Senate’s No. 2 Republican – is in response to the cases of serial sexual abusers at Michigan State University and Penn State University, they said.

The legislation would require a school’s president and at least one other member of the Board of Trustees to certify annually to the U.S. Secretary of Education that they have reviewed all sexual abuse investigations into university employees that were reported during the year, according to a bill summary.

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.

The senators say the requirements are needed because – in the cases of both MSU’s Larry Nassar and Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky – university leaders either didn’t take action or claimed that they were unaware of reports of abuse by employees.

“Too many young people have suffered appalling harm from abusers who should have been stopped by university officials,” said Peters of Bloomfield Township.

“I’m introducing this legislation to ensure that ‘I didn’t know’ will never again be an excuse for permitting monstrous abuse to continue under the watch of the officials we trust to look after our children.”

MSU is facing multiple law enforcement investigations and government inquiries into the way university leaders handled allegations against Nassar, a former sports doctor accused of abusing more than 200 women over more than two decades.

Nassar, who was affiliated with MSU and the U.S. gymnastics training organization, has been convicted and essentially sentenced to life in prison for his sex crimes, which were committed under the guise of a medical treatment.

Stabenow of Lansing said the bill would hold university leadership publicly accountable and make sure universities take abuse more seriously.

“When I met with survivors, they were very clearly focused on the future and making sure other young women never have to experience what they have gone through,” she said in a statement.

Cornyn said the bill would ensure reports of sexual misconduct against campus employees are “thoroughly reviewed” by university leadership.

“University officials must be responsible stewards of students’ trust, especially when they come forward with unthinkable allegations of abuse,” Cornyn said in a statement.

The bill, titled the Accountability of Leaders in Education to Report Title IX Investigations, or the ALERT Act, follows weeks of frustration both on and off campus at the failed response to Nassar at MSU, USA Gymnastics and other institutions.

MSU’s faculty senate this week cast a vote of no-confidence in the Board of Trustees in the wake of the scandal.

An investigation by The Detroit News last month found that reports of sexual misconduct by Nassar had reached at least 14 MSU representatives in the two decades before his arrest, with at least eight women reporting his actions.

Those 14 representatives included former MSU President Lou Anna Simon, who was informed in 2014 that a Title IX complaint and a police report had been filed against an unnamed physician.

Simon, who stepped down earlier this year, has said she did not interfere with the inquiry, which found no violation of the university’s sexual harassment policy based on the evidence, according to MSU.

In a Monday letter to Senate investigators, the university said it cannot confirm reports that a number of Nassar’s former patients told various individuals about his behavior as early as 1997, including coaches and trainers at MSU or others affiliated with the school.

“Past and present MSU employees have said that they do not remember the alleged reports to them (some of which would have taken place as many as 20 years ago) as they have been described,” a lawyer for the university wrote.

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