Bill: College boards must be told of sex assault cases
Lansing — Public universities would be required to notify their governing board members and president of alleged sexual assault complaints under a state Senate budget amendment adopted Wednesday in response to the Larry Nassar scandal at Michigan State University.
Supporters say the provision would eliminate the possibility of “willful ignorance” by university officials and encourage campus sexual assault victims to report wrongdoing by ensuring school leaders hear their complaints.
“I think that the state is making a strong statement that the leaders of every university should know about these cases, they should be aware of what happens, and they should be taken seriously,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, who sponsored the amendment. “Hopefully that gives survivors another reason or willingness to come forward.”
The budget approved Tuesday by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education would provide Michigan’s 15 public universities with a collective $42.85 million funding bump in 2019, a 2.9 percent increase over the current year and $14.3 million more than Gov. Rick Snyder recommended.
They would be required to spend a third of the new funding on campus safety, sexual assault prevention or student mental health programs.
Alexis Alvarado, a victim of Nassar’s assaults, hailed the idea to require universities to report sexual assault complaints to higher authority figures such as board members and the president.
“It would make survivors of sexual assault feel more comfortable coming forward and help them to know that they will be believed … and they won’t be scared into silence,” said Alvarado, a 20-year-old Ferris State University student.
The Senate budget committee had discussed penalizing MSU for the Nassar scandal but ultimately opted against a punitive approach, said Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, who chairs the panel.
“Obviously, nobody’s happy about what happened on Michigan State’s campus,” she said. “But at the end of the day, we felt that to punish financially and monetarily Michigan State was really just going to punish the students … and that’s the last thing we want to do.”
MSU would be in line for roughly $7.9 million in additional state funding under the budget, a 2 percent bump, provided the school does not raise tuition by more than 3.8 percent or $490 — a tuition restraint cap that would apply to all public universities in the state.
MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant praised the funding increase and told The Detroit News “we don’t have a problem” with the amendment that would require universities to provide written notice of every sexual misconduct complaint filed with their Title IX coordinator.
“We appreciate the Senate’s intent to create a more transparent system and greater overall awareness at universities when it comes to reporting sexual assault cases,” Guerrant said in an email. “MSU plans to cooperate fully with this proposed change.”
As The Detroit News reported in January, at least 14 MSU representatives were warned about Nassar’s behavior in the two decades prior to his arrest.
Rachael Denhollander publicly accused Nassar in September 2016, and he has now been accused of abusing at least 243 girls and women. He is expected to spend the rest of his life behind bars on sexual assault and child pornography convictions.
MSU trustees, elected officials who have resisted calls to resign, have maintained they did not know anything about earlier complaints against Nassar. Former President Lou Anna Simon, who said she was aware a Title IX complaint and police report had been filed against an unnamed physician in 2014, resigned Jan. 24.
Trustees and university presidents should be notified of any Title IX complaints so they can’t claim they “had no knowledge of that when there’s 200-plus girls getting molested on your campus,” Schuitmaker said. “They have to take responsibility.”
MSU Trustee Brian Mosallam said he favored the legislative move because he called for a similar change two months ago, arguing it is “unacceptable for survivors of sexual assault to live in fear and anxiety that they will not be heard.”
“I am in support of this concept and have already called for it at our Feb. 16th Board Meeting,” Mosallam tweeted Wednesday.
The Senate budget would also require public universities to add, maintain or update a “campus safety information and resources” link in a prominent position on their website homepage.
The site would need to include emergency contact numbers, information about Title IX offices, a list of security services provided by the university, its policy for allowing minors on campus, a directory of resources for sexual assault victims, a resource handbook and campus security policies and crime statistics.
The budget proposal, which now heads to the full Senate Appropriations Committee, comes as lawmakers also consider various updates to state law in response to the Nassar scandal.
The Senate last month approved sweeping legislation that would extend the statute of limitations for young victims of sexual assault abuse and require university or youth coaches to report any allegations to authorities.
Lawmakers in the Michigan House, who recently concluded an “alarming” inquiry into MSU and Nassar, on Wednesday submitted a new bipartisan bill package for pending introduction.
The legislation would create enhanced penalties for child pornography, new penalties for officials who stop others from reporting sexual misconduct to law enforcement and establish a new crime for health care professionals who engage in sexual misconduct with patients under the guise of medical treatment, like Nassar did.
Other measures would require new informed consent and reporting requirements for doctors who perform invasive treatments on minors, create a new Title IX ombudsman for college students and enhance training for mandatory reporters.
“Michigan State University’s response to the reports of sexual assault was completely abhorrent by medical, professional and moral standards,” said Rep. Kim Lasata, a Bainbridge Republican who chairs the House higher education budget committee, in a statement. “These bills will prevent another failure like this from occurring again.”
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