Dingell legislation aims to hold universities accountable for sex assault after string of abuse cases

Washington — Michigan U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell introduced a bill in Congress on Tuesday that aims to hold universities accountable for mishandling sexual assault reports by making them liable under federal law if they don't sufficiently respond or act to minimize sexual misconduct.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Connecticut Democratic Rep. Jahana Hayes, is called the Title IX Take Responsibility Act.

It seeks to establish standards for notice and reasonable care for educational institutions covered by Title IX, deeming them liable for sex discrimination under the law if they knew or should have known of the sexual harassment and failed to "promptly" prevent or correct its effects. 

The legislation would also give individuals the right to sue over any institution's failure to comply with the new standards.

U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell speaks during a press conference at the Great Lakes Water Authority Water Resource Recovery Facility, in Detroit on July 8, 2021. She introduced a bill in Congress on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021 that aims to hold universities accountable for mishandling sexual assault reports by making them liable under federal law if they don't sufficiently respond or act to minimize sexual misconduct.

Dingell said the legislation was prompted in part by allegations at Michigan State University and Eastern Michigan University, which have grappled with high-profile sexual abuse cases involving hundreds of students.

Many have accused university leaders of failing to protect students after they became aware of the alleged incidents, and say further harm could have been avoided to potentially hundreds of others if university officials had taken action.

"If you talk to the schools, they will say to you, 'Nobody ever filed charges,' 'Our hands were tied,' or 'There wasn't anything that could be done,'" Dingell said. 

She recalled a meeting she had with 29 alleged victims of sexual assault at EMU

"It was clear that there were people on the campus that knew about some of this stuff, or they reasonably should have known, and I just think that they should have taken action," Dingell said.

"And for sure, that's true at Michigan State. (The bill) just really focuses on ensuring that schools that are accountable in these situations, and that they've got to provide 'reasonable care.'" 

Dingell was referring to accusations that MSU failed to respond to complaints about sexual abuse for more than two decades by the now-imprisoned former sports doctor Larry Nassar. Nassar’s behavior, which reached Olympic gymnasts, led to MSU agreeing to a $500 million settlement with more than 500 women and girls.

Eastern Michigan University is accused in two dozen lawsuits of failing to respond to students who sought help from the university’s Title IX office after claims of brutal rapes, mostly in fraternity houses.

The University of Michigan also is accused of failing to stop the sexual misconduct of numerous faculty members including former Provost Martin Philbert and the late doctor Robert Anderson.

Philbert’s behavior led to the university agreeing in November 2020 to pay $9.25 million to eight women allegedly victimized by Philbert, formerly the second-highest ranking UM official.

The university is also currently in mediation with more than 850 people, mostly men, accusing Anderson of sexual misconduct during the 35 years that he was the head of University Health Service and team physician for the UM Athletic Department.

"In all these cases, there was a pattern. People knew and administrators say, 'Well, no one told us,'" Dingell said. 

"Well, there should be a process in place at that campus so that when faculty or staff are getting these reports, someone's reporting it up that chain, so their senior management knows they've got a problem."

Her legislation is separate from another bill with Michigan co-sponsors that seeks to respond to the Nassar scandal and similar cases. It would require the leadership of universities and colleges that receive federal funds to personally review sexual abuse investigations of campus employees.

More:Bill ties federal funding for universities to accountability for sex abuse cases

That legislation, the ALERT Act, was reintroduced in May and 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 Title IX sexual abuse investigations into university employees that were reported during the year.

The ALERT Act is sponsored by U.S. Reps. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly; Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; and Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township; and Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats.

Cases involving widespread sexual abuse at universities have also occurred at universities across the country, including the University of Southern California, which agreed this year to pay more than $850 million to women accusing former gynecologist George Tyndall, who has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., center, stands beside U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Illinois on the first day of the 116th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 3, 2019. She is co-sponsoring the Title IX Take Responsibility Act that would hold universities accountable for sexual assaults on campus.

Dingell said part of the problem is that, under recent Title IX regulations, victims have found it more difficult to report sexual assault or harassment, making them fearful of retribution or attacks — both physical or those on their character — or of having their complaints swept under the rug. 

"One in five women will be assaulted during their time in college. The impact of sexual violence has a ripple effect for survivors, including academic challenges, and a range of physical and mental health issues," Hayes said in a statement. 

"This bill would ensure that the onus is on education institutions to take responsibility for campus culture and sufficiently prevent and respond to violence against students, faculty and staff."