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The ongoing trials of Michigan State University are shedding light not just on the abuses of former Dr. Larry Nassar, but also on the peril of placing campuses in charge of sexual assault investigations.

MSU is rightly in the hot seat for ignoring all sorts of warning signs that Nassar was a serial predator, but the failures of its Title IX office are mirrored at colleges all over the country.

Public universities are required to have an office that handles sexual assault complaints under the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools. Over time, these offices have grown in power and have assumed a role once reserved for the police and courts.

To change that structure, Congress will need to clarify Title IX. But in the meantime, state legislators can also offer some guidelines that could encourage universities to report the crimes of sexual assault and rape to the police rather than handling those investigations themselves.

Michigan lawmakers are on the case, in response to what happened at MSU. On Thursday, the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee approved a budget that requires more transparency with Title IX reporting from universities, and those that don’t comply face a 10 percent reduction in state funding.

House Appropriations Chair Laura Cox, R-Livonia, is considering a requirement that universities let victims know they can go to the police with their complaints, in addition to campus administrators.

“The university has to give them that information, but the victim still has control,” she says.

Cox, who has a background in law enforcement and criminal justice, has worked to help victims of sexual assault more easily track rape kits, and she’s also participated the last few years with first lady Sue Snyder’s summits to raise awareness of campus assaults.

Because of the extremely personal nature of sexual crimes, it’s often left to victims to decide if they want to go to police. Cox is wary about universities reporting incidents without a student’s consent.

A federal lawsuit against MSU filed this week brought this issue again to the forefront. In the suit, a woman is accusing the school’s Counseling Center staff of discouraging her from reporting an alleged rape in 2015 by three former basketball players to police and not alerting her to the option of reporting the incident to university Title IX officials.

The university is strongly denying any wrongdoing by staff and says employees handled the situation appropriately.

Universities have discretion when it comes to setting policies for handling sexual assault. MSU’s policy is clear: “Employees are required to report allegations of sexual assault involving members of the University community to the MSU Police Department and the Office for Institutional Equity. Both offices will contact the student to provide resources and information on options for addressing the incident.”

Some staff are exempt from mandatory reporting requirements for privacy reasons, says MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant. These include the counselors and staff at the sexual assault center. In most recent case, Guerrant says the academic adviser (a mandatory reporter) who became aware of the alleged assault did alert the campus police.

Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, argues that universities aren’t the right venue for investigating and adjudicating sexual assault cases.

“We’re concerned that schools don’t have the tools do it right,” he says.

Cohn says state lawmakers can clarify that campus administrators shouldn’t be prevented from contacting law enforcement, even if the accuser hasn’t yet gone to authorities — especially in cases where they fear a repeat offense.

But it will take Congress to update Title IX, which courts have interpreted over the years to mean that it’s on schools to investigate sexual assault complaints, rather than make sure those complaints are handled fairly by a better suited agency, such as local police.

While administrators still have a role to play, such as in helping students seek counseling and other services, all students would be better served if police investigated campus crimes.

ijacques@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques

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