A bipartisan group of Michigan’s congressional delegation announced two bills Tuesday that would require reports of sexual assault involving a university employee be reviewed by the highest levels of college administrators.
Lawmakers said the legislation is a direct response to the Larry Nassar abuse scandal at Michigan State University.
Michigan Senator Gary Peters co-sponsored the bill in the Senate alongside fellow Democrat and Michigander Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn.
Peters said he was outraged when former MSU President Lou Anna Simon testified before congress that she had not read the 2014 Title IX report involving Larry Nassar, the former MSU doctor, convicted for his serial abuse of women and girls under the guise of medical treatment.
The following is the exchange from the 2018 hearing:
In 2014 you were informed of a Title IX investigation involving Larry Nassar and responding to reporters, it has been reported, that you failed to read that report. Is that correct?
Simon:“That would be an incorrect interpretation of what I believe is the case. I received an email from the Title IX officer saying that there was an individual in sports medicine being reviewed. My comment was, ‘play it with a straight bat.’ It was done in the system, appropriately, in terms of the system. I do not normally see any Title IX report, particularly one with no finding, they’re sent to the responsible administrator. In this case also the office of the provost.”
Sen. Peters: You said you didn’t see one. Did you ask for the report?
Simon: “I didn’t ask for the report because it was simply… I don’t know why she gave me that notice. In hindsight, I met as president with the Title IX person periodically. We went over hot button issues, any issues. Any issues of complaints that were problematic to her. But, I did not read that complaint. I did not see it in 2016. It was a ‘no finding.’”
“To me, it is outrageous that you have a Title IX case pending, alleging sexual abuse from an employee in the university and then have someone say, ‘I never read the report. I didn't know about it.’ I think that's unacceptable.” said Peters.
“So, it addresses the issue that once once the complaint has been made, and a report has been drawn up, they can just gather dust in somebody's drawer.”
Peters had previously introduced the legislation in the Senate, but he reintroduced it Tuesday paired with companion legislation in the U.S. House supported by three Michigan representatives, Democrat Elissa Slotkin (MI-08) and Republicans Paul Mitchell (MI-10) and Fred Upton (MI-06).
If passed, what will it do?
The ALERT Act would require that a university president, or equivalent officer, and at least one member of the board of trustees annually review all Title IX investigations involving a university employee.
College administrators would then have to certify that they reviewed all reports to the Secretary of Education, or risk losing federal funding.
Lawmakers say the legislation is inspired by failures of university leadership at MSU and Pennsylvania State University in handling sex abuse scandals, technically under the purview of the Title IX process.
But, in both cases, the abuse went on for many years before it was reported. And, when it was reported, there was a gap of many years before additional complaints were made that spurred Title IX cases.
Elizabeth Abdnour is an attorney who represents clients navigating the Title IX process and previously worked in MSU’s Title IX office.
She said both bills wouldn’t have impacted the cases at MSU or Penn State until the very end of the abuse because there was a pervasive culture of non-compliance with Title IX reporting processes.
Abdnour contends if the goal of the bill is to increase accountability of university officials in the Title IX process, “I don't really see how it's going to do that because unless these incidents are being reported to the Title IX coordinator, then this bill isn't even going to have any effect at all. And that is what the main problem was in these two issues.”
Peters concedes, “Certainly if it hasn’t been reported that’s a different situation. And, you have to address the culture of the university and there needs to be a focus. But, I don’t think that discounts the fact that if there is a report, you’re going to be held accountable for it.”
But Abdnour argues if lawmakers really want to move the needle in Title IX compliance at universities like MSU and Penn State, they need to bolster preexisting check that exists within the Department of Education, the Office of Civil Rights.
“We have a mechanism by which these issues can be addressed. It's just that it's not sufficiently staffed or funded for those investigations to be completed in a way that's going to have a really significant effect,” said Abdnour.
Presently, universities under investigation by the office of civil rights for Title IX compliance can be threatened with losing their federal funding entirely.
But, “Universities sort of know that this kind of nuclear option of cutting off all of their federal funding probably isn't going to happen,” said Abdnour.
She argues if lawmakers really wanted to attack the issue of systemic institutional non-compliance with Title IX standards they would offer the option for the office of civil rights to levy punishments short of cutting off all federal funding or ending in resolution, like financial penalties.
Abdnour is also skeptical that requiring a university president or member of the board of trustees to certify review of Title IX reports is particularly meaningful.
“It doesn't really make sense to me for that person to be the president and a member of the board of trustees because those people have a really a vested interest in protecting the institution,” said Abdnour.
Will universities push back?
If both bills receive support in the House and Senate, the next expected hurdle would be reception of universities.
Namely, is it likely that a university the size of MSU or Penn State would require their president examine all Title IX reports involving an employee?
“My response to that would be, why not?” said Rep. Paul Mitchell, who co-sponsored the legislation in the House.
When asked if universities would rebuff the proposed legislation he said, “An educational institution has to make a number of certifications. ‘Really?’ Is one more certification that you’re complying with the law that difficult to do? It shouldn't be.”
MSU provided a written statement supporting the, “effort underway at the federal level to improve the dialogues on university campuses regarding sexual assault and Title IX cases.”
A spokeswoman for the university said the ALERT Act is “similar to what lawmakers at the state level enacted last year, which MSU supported.”
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