Michigan State bolstering sexual assault resources after report calls for improvement

Michigan State plans to bolster the staff and educational resources available on campus for dealing with issues of sexual assault as the university reviews a report completed this week evaluating its Title IX program.

Members of the campus community who were surveyed as part of the report "overwhelmingly concluded that there is room for significant improvement" in how the university handles Title IX cases and educates its community members about sexual assault and relationship violence.

Michigan State hired Husch Blackwell, a Kansas City-based law firm, last fall to conduct a two-pronged review of its Title IX program that would determine if the school's policies met legal requirements for Title IX, and then interview students and employees to gauge how effective the university's efforts to prevent and properly deal with sexual assault have been.

Michigan State interim president John Engler thanked the university community for participating in the review Wednesday in a release that also included the last of Husch Blackwell's three written reports about its findings. He said the school has already started to address many of the suggestions made by Husch Blackwell in its report.

"This final report will help inform how we proceed with formulating a variety of strategies to address the findings," Engler said.

Some of the changes the school has begun to implement include adding staff positions to its Sexual Assault Program, the Office of Institutional Equity (which oversees the Title IX program) and the Student Affairs office. Those new employees will be asked to provide more direct support to survivors of assault and others in the Title IX process. The school also said it is working on enhancing its education and outreach programs for several student groups, looking into new ways for students to communicate their concerns and is planning a comprehensive "campus climate survey" in the next academic year.

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights completed a years-long investigation into the school in 2015, which found that Michigan State had a "sexually hostile environment" and failed to "address complaints of sexual harassment, including sexual violence, in a prompt and equitable manner." Michigan State agreed to make staffing enhancements and conduct "climate checks" to assess how well the university was improving in those areas after the investigation three years ago.

Michigan State asked the Department of Education in October to end its monitoring of the university because it had gone "above and beyond" in meeting federal standards for Title IX reporting. That request, which came one month after the school hired Husch Blackwell to review the program and a month before the firm completed the first of its three reports, was denied. Part of the reason for that denial, according to documents obtained by Outside the Lines, was due to how the university had handled claims against former university doctor and convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar.

More than 300 women claim in lawsuits that the school failed to monitor and stop Nassar from abusing his patients, many of whom were gymnasts and some of whom played a variety of sports for the Spartans.

The university is also a defendant in multiple sexual assault lawsuits having to do with former student-athletes. Last month, a woman sued Michigan State, claiming that university employees persuaded her not to report an alleged rape by three of the school's basketball players to police. Another woman sued the school last November, saying Michigan State had mishandled a Title IX complaint she filed against a former football player.

The Department of Education's 2015 report found specific problems within Michigan State's athletic program. It says students told investigators that athletes on campus "have a reputation for engaging in sexual harassment and sexual assault and not being punished for it, because athletes are held in such high regard at the university." The school said Wednesday that student-athletes are one of the groups that will receive enhanced education and outreach programs.

Husch Blackwell held a discussion group specifically for student-athletes as part of its review this spring. The report said that the majority of the athletes the firm talked to felt "singled out, stereotyped and even villainized by other members of the MSU community and the media."

"If one of us fails at something, it's easy for all of us to be generalized as failing as well," one student-athlete said, according to the report.

Student-athletes in that discussion suggested that the athletic department could improve its image and how it handles sexual assault by increasing the mental health and wellness staff available for athletes, utilizing positive role models and positive reinforcement to teach good habits and improve its Title IX-related training initiatives.