Buss: Universities fail assault victims

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

Colleges and universities can’t be trusted to correctly handle reports, allegations or victims of sexual assault.

No one knows that better than Rachael Denhollander. One of Larry Nassar’s victims, she alone orchestrated the case against him for the state to take up and ultimately prosecute, in spite of what is increasingly looking like an agenda from Michigan State University to protect him and others who’ve assaulted students. The university ignored complaints about Nassar that reached at least 14 of its officials over two decades.

That the university mishandled the information sadly is not an outlier. While universities are increasingly becoming hotbeds of sexual assault, their ability to handle sexual crimes seems to just get worse.

Yet students are encouraged to report assaults to officials at universities with the assumption that they’ll pursue justice.

But that doesn’t always happen.

The number of universities being investigated for mishandling Title IX complaints, which cover everything from gender discrimination to rape, has more than quadrupled in the past four years — from 55 in 2014 to more than 300 today.

That doesn’t mean those universities have all violated the law. But it does underscore that these schools, which are supremely concerned with reputations, donor retention, grant funding and other outside accolades, can’t be where sexual assault victims turn for justice.

While justice is never guaranteed in our legal system, reporting sexual assault to police as a crime is the surest way to end its spread.

Title IX is a civil protection; it doesn’t initiate or ensure criminal proceedings. If a person is sexually assaulted, filing a Title IX complaint is an action, yes, but it lacks the total gravity that sexual assault demands.

University officials — including now former president Lou Anna Simon and the Board of Trustees — student athlete leaders and counselors, even family members, ignored, silenced and questioned victims at every turn. The harrowing reports have prompted a societal gasp that so many who were told about the abuse turned a blind eye.

But as long as victims see universities, not the police, as a first stop for reporting sexual abuse, what is to stop sexual predators from abusing others? Nothing.

Denhollander filed both a Title IX complaint and a report with university police. But only once child porn was found in his possession was she taken seriously.

In the case of another Nassar victim who also filed a Title IX complaint, she received back a report from the university stating his treatment was medically sound. Meanwhile, Michigan State received a separate, different report that Nassar was inflicting unnecessary trauma on patients and opening up the school to liability. These differing reports regarding the same complaint were issued by a school official who is now assistant general counsel for the university.

It’s obvious colleges and universities will do little more than remove a pervert from a job post (although Michigan State and Penn State didn’t even get that far). They won’t put a sexual predator behind bars, and it’s clear they won’t risk their own reputation by being transparent on these issues.

Local police departments are far from perfect, and they don’t catch every offender. Even in the Nassar case, police failed, too. But they are the best possible route to the justice sexual assault victims deserve, and the surest way to prevent Nassar and his kind from harming others.

Victims must feel empowered to seek out that justice.