DeVos: 'Inappropriate' to meet Nassar victims due to legal conflict

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies before the House Education and Labor Committee at a hearing her department's policies Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Washington — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says she can’t meet with victims of serial sexual assault abuser Larry Nassar, citing a legal conflict. 

DeVos said in a letter to U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, that her department is investigating Michigan State University in relation to "systemic issues" in the school's handling of sexual violence committed by Nassar, as well as a probe into MSU's compliance with federal law related to disclosure of campus crimes. 

"As part of these investigations, Department staff have interviewed students and staff at MSU, and it would be inappropriate to speak to survivors as part of a separate, collateral process," wrote DeVos, who said she has met with other abuse victims. 

Slotkin said she met Tuesday at the Department of Education with DeVos, who confirmed that she has never met with a victim of Nassar’s abuse.

Slotkin said she urged DeVos at the meeting to sit down with Nassar victims within the next three months when the department is still considering changes to guidelines for how institutions investigate sexual assault allegations under Title IX of federal civil rights law.

"I don’t see that as a political issue, just a human issue — that she should want to be informed," Slotkin said in an interview. 

"I spoke from my heart about how those meetings have affected me and helped me understand in just a very, very different way. I told her the survivors are the ones who don’t want this to be a political issue. They want this to be a bipartisan issue." 

But DeVos, who is from the Grand Rapids area, rejected the request to meet with Nassar victims until after the changes to Title IX are finalized, Slotkin said. 

"Unfortunately, she gave me a very legalistic answer. She had lawyers in the room and claimed that she wished she could meet with survivors but she's prohibited from meeting with them."

Slotkin said she appreciated that DeVos took the meeting, but the answer was "really disappointing." 

"But also confusing because she was meeting with me and we were talking generally about sexual assault," Slotkin added. 

"I think she was using the legal excuse as a way to get around what seems like a really logical thing to do as a Michigander."  

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

Nassar is serving what amounts to life in prison after admitting to to sexually abusing girls and women under the guise of medical treatment over 20 years. 

He was convicted for "unimaginable crimes," DeVos said in her letter, adding that she has "the utmost respect for the bravery displayed by the survivors of his despicable sexual assaults."

"Therefore, I want to thank you for your request that I meet with Michigan State University Title IX survivor-advocates to hear about their experiences and views on how to prevent sexual assault on college campuses," DeVos wrote. 

"However, as you are no doubt aware, the law prevents me from doing so at this time." 

DeVos also told Slotkin it would be inappropriate to discuss the Title IX revisions because the public comment period has closed.

She did note that Trump administration officials met with Nassar abuse victims prior to publishing the proposed Title IX revisions in the federal register last year.  

DeVos has criticized campus sexual misconduct rules established by the Obama administration and said her proposal is meant in part to be more fair to students who are accused of misconduct, saying one person denied due process is one too many.

She stressed that confronting sexual abuse on campus "head on" is one of her highest priorities as secretary. 

"Never again will these acts only be whispered about in closed-off counseling rooms or swept under the rug," DeVos wrote. 

Slotkin's district includes MSU, where Nassar was a sports doctor. She wanted DeVos to meet with Nassar victims because of how their perspective could affect the regulatory changes under consideration.

"As a Michigander, I couldn’t understand why she would be willing to make such significant changes — particularly changes that seem to completely and willfully ignore the lessons we learned from the Larry Nassar scandal — without speaking with the survivors themselves," Slotkin said. 

She said DeVos’s proposed Title IX rules would have shielded, and in some cases prohibited, MSU from taking action on the Title IX claims against Nassar.

Her guest for President Donald Trump's State of the Union address in February was Amanda Thomashow, who filed the first Title IX complaint against Nassar in 2014. 

Slotkin noted that MSU wouldn't have had to investigate Thomashow's complaint under the Education Department's proposed guidelines.

That's because colleges would be forced to investigate only if the alleged incident occurred on campus or in other areas overseen by the school. Thomashow saw Nassar in an office across the street from campus. 

"I was giving her the message from the survivors on what they had told me, and she couldn’t address the specifics," Slotkin said.

"I believe her that that is a restriction on her, but she could surely listen. That's what she was doing with me, and I just hoped she could agree to do the same thing with the survivors." 

Slotkin said in the meeting she also urged DeVos to issue Title IX guidance on educating young people in K-12 about consent before they reach college campuses, "so they know how to be conscious of sexual assault."

"She didn’t seem responsive to that. She just pleasantly smiled and took the point but didn’t respond," the lawmaker said. 

She said DeVos rebuffed her request that the department beef up accountability for charter schools to better ensure federal dollars are spent appropriately.

"She basically rebutted the idea there was any other additional accountability needed on our charter schools," Slotkin said. 

In response to the Nassar scandal, Slotkin and other Michigan lawmakers are pushing bipartisan legislation to require the leadership of colleges to certify that they've reviewed sexual abuse investigations of campus employees.

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

Slotkin said she's exploring other legislation in the case that DeVos moves ahead with her proposed changes to Title IX. 

"For us, this is not the end of the story," she said.