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The woman who has held Michigan State University's Title IX office together through the Dr. Larry Nassar scandal is moving on. But she says she is leaving the university in a better position to combat sexual assault.

Jessica Norris, the associate vice president of the Office for Civil Rights and Title IX Education and Compliance, is proud of the work she’s accomplished since starting her job at MSU in December 2015.

“Those were not easy circumstances,” Norris says. “I had to build a Title IX program from scratch. That office has evolved, and the staff has continued to increase. What we are really focused on is ways to continuously improve.”

While much of what she put into place is just now taking effect, Norris decided to leave MSU and work at a private college in Missouri. Her last day is June 15, and the university has started interviewing other candidates. She says the decision is for personal reasons and not directly related to the uproar over Nassar. (When Norris began her job, she was unaware of any accusations against the sports doctor.)

“While she has only been at MSU for a few years, she has shepherded through improvements to many policies and procedures and worked with other sexual assault leaders on campus to increase resources the university has dedicated to improvements,” says Emily Guerrant, MSU spokeswoman. “To say we are sad to see her leave is a huge understatement.”

Much of the work Norris did was to shape the Office of Institutional Equity, which had formed earlier in 2015 as a result of an investigation from the U.S. Department of Education into MSU’s reported mishandling of sexual assault cases.

Under her direction, the Title IX office has a new leadership structure, along with roughly a dozen new positions that are in the process of being filled. Norris says she’s worked closely with interim President John Engler on this beefed up organizational chart.

“The Office of Institutional Equity is really focused on improving the experience of individuals who are engaged in the investigation process,” Norris says.

She wanted to fashion a system that would streamline investigations, while connecting students to other resources on campus.

Another focus for Norris has been on prevention and education -- she’s even started a pilot program working with area high schools to raise awareness of sexual assault.

“Ultimately our goal is to prevent incidents from occurring in the first place,” Norris says. “One of the things I’m most excited about, in terms of the future of civil rights and Title IX, is the creation of the prevention outreach and education unit.”

Universities’ response to sexual assault complaints has the full attention of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is working to craft a new framework that ensures due process for accused students, a very different direction than the one taken by the department under the Obama administration.

Norris says that Title IX directors need some consistent guidance from the federal government.

“The shifting sand of federal guidance certainly adds a layer of complexity and difficulty to the work,” she says.

Yet she’s glad DeVos has signaled she will be putting the new guidance through the rule-making process, allowing for public comments along with way.

“I don’t think our work is ever done in any aspect of a Title IX program but having the compliance piece remain static and stable would certainly help institutions to codify their practices and be able to elevate their focus on continuous improvement,” Norris says.

As she looks to MSU's future, Norris says she’s set up a system that prioritizes communication and letting students know what resources are available to them. She attributes the spike last year in reported sexual misconduct cases to that awareness.

“When I think about rebuilding trust, that has to come from a place of open communication and engagement,” she says. “It is important for individuals to have a sense of confidence in folks that are in the office and that there is concern and care for their experience through the process.

“The foundation is built. I feel like I’m leaving a unit set up for success.”

ijacques@detroitnews.com

 

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