Bill would boost university accountability for sexual abuse cases

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Gary Peters

Washington — Bipartisan legislation introduced by Michigan lawmakers in Congress this week would require the leadership of colleges that receive federal funds to certify that they've reviewed sexual abuse investigations of campus employees.

The bill, dubbed the Alert Act, is a response to the case of serial sex abuser Larry Nassar at Michigan State University and the claims by MSU leaders that they were unaware of reports of his abuse, lawmakers said.

"In Michigan, unfortunately, there is still a serious trust deficit between MSU and the survivors, the student body and the faculty and Michigan families," said bill sponsor and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. 

"We need to make sure that there is no excuse used by the top officials at the university — especially the excuse that 'I didn't know.'" 

MSU faced multiple investigations and inquiries into the way leadership handled allegations against Nassar, a former sports doctor accused of abusing more than 200 women over more than two decades.

Nassar, who was also affiliated with the U.S. gymnastics training organization, was effectively sentenced to life in prison last year for his sexual misconduct crimes, which were committed under the guise of a medical treatment.

Peters noted that former MSU President Lou Anna Simon acknowledged during a Senate hearing last year that she had not read the 2014 Title IX report documenting allegations of misconduct by Nassar.

"She even added it wasn't normal for her to review the reports of these kinds of allegations. Well, that fact is simply unacceptable," Peters said. "That's why Congress needs to pass our bipartisan and bicameral legislation."

Simon, who stepped down last 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.

The legislation would require a school’s president and at least one 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 to the campus Title IX coordinator during the year.

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.

Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin speaks at a town hall event at Oakland University, in Rochester, MI on March 21, 2019.

"University officials will no longer be able to turn a blind eye to these sorts of serious allegations," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who also sponsored the legislation.

"With this bill, we put a spotlight on where deserves to be placed — on school leadership, and we expect them to d0 their job if they are going to qualify (for federal funding) under Title IX." 

The bill is also sponsored by Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Reps. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly; Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; and Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden. 

"By passing the Alert Act, we can take one step forward in establishing accountability on our campuses," said Slotkin, a freshman whose district includes MSU.

"For me, this is just a first step and not my last on the legislation that we're going to put forward to improve Title IX." 

Upton said the legislation has received positive feedback from the wider community of universities and colleges, who "really embrace this legislation."

He suggested the bill should be expedited, bypassing the committee process and get a House vote under suspension of the rules.