Lawmakers spar over sexual assault education plan

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan lawmakers sparred Tuesday over public school curriculum and medical records legislation introduced in response to the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal at Michigan State University.

A plan that would require public schools to teach students about sexual assault and healthy dating relationships faced opposition from a lawmaker who questioned whether it could involve inappropriate curriculum for K-12 schools.

A separate package that would require written consent, documentation and longer record retention for medical treatments involving vaginal or anal penetration faced continued objections from physicians who say the rules would be onerous. A lawmaker also called the plan “inane.”

The House Law and Justice Committee is taking a methodical approach to a suite of bipartisan bills inspired by the Nassar crisis and has not yet considered any of measures approved by the Senate last month.

Nassar victim Emma Ann Miller on Tuesday urged quick action by legislators. She offered support for a bill sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, that would require the Michigan Department of Education to provide age-appropriate information about sexual assault and harassment to students in grades 6-12.

“This legislation ... will hopefully not only give others a voice, but will educate them on what to say,” Miller said.

The 15-year old Haslett High School sophomore, who says Nassar abused her during treatment through MSU Sports Medicine, told lawmakers she has seen lots of “faux empathy” but little real change to stop the next Nassar or change the culture at the university.

“Unfortunately, we know there will be others after Larry Nassar that sexually assault,” Miller said. “In fact, a realist would say there are Larry Nassars right now in our communities, even at Michigan State.”

A separate bill introduced by Rep. Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, would update the state sexual education curriculum law by requiring schools to teach students about teen dating violence and sexual assault.

“How do we expect to stop the cycle of domestic abuse and sexual assault if we do not adequately prepare our teenagers before they leave our K-12 system,” LaSata said.

The legislation would allow parents to “opt out” their children, but Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy, questioned language in the bill describing instruction in healthy relationship behaviors and conflict resolution for intimate relationships.

In his family, it is “completely inappropriate” to have sexual relationships outside of marriage, Howrylak said, citing faith and morals. If he had a child in public school, “then what you’re doing is codifying the concept that the government knows better than I do how to raise my child.”

In a tense exchange, Howrylak accused LaSata of “adding something in here with my tax dollars that could be in violation of what I think would be morally right.”

She responded: “Then opt out.”

“Well then, don’t take my tax dollars,” Howrlak replied. “Maybe you could fix your bill and stop arguing with me.”

“Maybe you could send your kids to a parochial school, and then you would be safe,” LaSata said.

The measure does not call for teaching high school students about “affirmative consent” in sexual encounters, which Democrats have separately proposed. Affirmative consent means students must consciously and voluntarily agree to engage in sexual activity and the consent can be revoked by either party at any time.

The committee on Tuesday also revisited related bills that seek to reform medical profession rules in response to Nassar, who abused hundreds of girls and young women under the guise of medical treatment.

For the second week, physicians and other health experts raised concerns that proposed reporting requirements and affirmative consent rules could discourage doctors from performing legitimate treatments like pelvic exams or rectal exams for constipation. They argued the mandates could instead result in more referrals to the emergency room or gynecologists.

“We have a lot of practitioners who won’t examine that part of the body anymore because of the concern about liability or perceived impropriety,” said Dr. Betty Chu with the Michigan State Medical Society.

Rep. Klint Kesto, a Commerce Township Republican who chairs the committee, said the state does not want to create a “chilling effect” for doctors but repeatedly asked experts how they would propose preventing another Nassar without new regulations.

“It seems to me if someone is sexually assaulted, screaming ‘no,’ that person knows it’s a sexual assault,” Kesto said. “But in this situation, they perhaps did not know.”

State Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, D-Detroit, agreed with physician concerns and said it would be “outrageous” to put burdensome restrictions on an entire profession because of the actions of Nassar, who she said “groomed” his victims under unique circumstances.

“I’m opposed to the criminalization of your record keeping,” Robinson said, referencing bills that would require health facilities to document any medical service involving anal or vaginal penetration and maintain those records for at least 15 years or face felony charges.

“I think it’s inane. I think it’s stupid,” she said.

The House committee is set to meet again Wednesday and in coming weeks to continue debating the legislation before finalizing a plan to send to the House floor, likely by next month.

“We want to make sure that we’re deliberate,” Kesto said, “that we do the right thing, that when there are problems with some of the language, we hear from the people this is going to affect.”