In the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, there is a lot attention on how MSU handles cases of sexual misconduct. Figuring out how schools address that misconduct can be difficult, as investigations are largely handled on a case-by-case basis. However, at the center of sexual misconduct claims in public schools is a law called Title IX.
What is Title IX?
Title IX requires federally funded schools to offer equal opportunities to men and women in all avenues, including sports, academics and research and prohibits sexual discrimination.
As it relates to crime, Title IX also requires schools to report and investigate any cases of sexual misconduct against students and employees, including sexual assault and harassment. As a condition of receiving federal funding, The Department of Education requires schools to follow guidelines like:
- Having a Title IX coordinator who oversees sexual discrimination cases.
- Disclosing sex-related crime statistics and information about security policies.
- Ensuring Title IX investigations are “prompt, thorough and equitable,” meaning cases are resolved in a timely and in-depth manner and there is no presence of bias.
How do Title IX investigations work?
There’s no uniform method that all schools must have in Title IX investigations. Schools can adopt their own investigative models and methods for cases, with few exceptions.
For example, MSU has what is called a ‘single-investigatory model.’ This means that for a Title IX case, one person in the office investigates the complaint, determines whether or not there was a violation of Title IX and, if there was a violation, files a report. That report is referred to The Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution office, who then determines the appropriate punishment.
University of Miami Law professor Tamara Lave says that while this method leads to quick investigations, it has some drawbacks. Lave says investigators in the single-investigatory model may have an inherent bias against the accused.
“They may be selected to correct against past injustices to victims,” Lave said. “You may have someone who’s hired because the school thinks they’re more pro-victim.”
Another common method for Title IX investigations is called a ‘hearing model.’ In this model an investigator determines whether or not a complaint goes to the Title IX office. If it goes through, a hearing is held that is structurally similar to a jury trial: evidence is presented and the accuser, the accused and any witnesses testify. Lastly, a separate investigator or group of investigators decides if there was a Title IX violation and determines the appropriate punishment.
Lave says that while this method takes more time and resources, it’s necessary to find the truth.
“It’s much better to have a separate hearing in which questions are asked and evidence is presented,” Lave said. “It matters having cross examination, it’s the best vehicle at arriving at the truth.”
While Title IX cases are required to end in a “timely” manner, schools can interpret that however they want. Maura Crossin, the director of the Victim Rights Center of Connecticut, says schools can set their own internal timeline for cases to be resolved.
“[Investigations] are recommended to conclude within a timely manner, but some schools will view that very narrowly, some schools will view that very broadly,” Crossin said.
It’s important to know that Title IX investigations aren’t criminal investigations, they’re administrative. If in the course of an investigation it’s discovered that a law was broken, the police are notified. This is what happened in the case of Larry Nassar.
However, Title IX investigations only deal with violations of university policy, and punishments, like probation or firing someone, are handled administratively.
What does Title IX have to do with Larry Nassar?
Larry Nassar is a convicted serial child molester and former osteopathic physician at MSU. In 2014, MSU graduate Amanda Thomashaw accused Nassar of sexually assaulting her during an examination, although Nassar had faced similar accusations as early as 1994. After Thomashaw’s complaint, MSU opened a Title IX investigation into Nassar violating the university’s policy on relationship violence and sexual misconduct, but eventually cleared him. In response to Thomashaw’s complaint, MSU PD opened a criminal investigation, but no charges were filed against Nassar.
In 2016, after several former patients of Nassar accused him of assault, Nassar was charged with 22 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with minors. In the years since, many have questioned the findings of MSU’s initial Title IX investigation.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education began investigating MSU’s handling of reports against Nassar.
What has happened to Title IX during the Trump administration?
The Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights set guidelines for schools to follow in Title IX cases. In September, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos removed several Obama administration policies and proposed new guidelines, including:
- Removing the recommended 60 day timeline for investigations.
- Increasing the standard of evidence for Title IX cases.
- Allowing schools to pursue informal resolutions to Title IX cases, such as mediation, as opposed to an investigation or hearing.
“This interim guidance will help schools as they work to combat sexual misconduct and will treat all students fairly,” DeVos said in a written statement. “Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head-on. There will be no more sweeping them under the rug. But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes.”
Elizabeth Boyle, the Federal and State organizer with advocacy group Know Your IX, says these rollbacks, especially the use of face-to-face mediation, are dangerous for victims.
“Schools are allowed to offer mediation in any case, which is really destructive,” Boyle said. “There’s such a great power imbalance between there that [victims] might not be comfortable enough to speak up and wouldn’t get the resources they need to feel safe.”
What does this all mean for MSU going forward?
The Department of Education’s investigation has just begun, and federal officials recently attended an ASMSU forum addressing sexual assault on campus. James Moore, director of the Compliance Division at the U.S. Department of Education, said at the forum that they want to make sure MSU is protecting students.
“We’re about the diagnosis of problems and correcting them so that we’re not having this discussion five or 10 years from now,” Moore said.
If the department finds that MSU mishandled the reports against Nassar, it can pull funding and place sanctions on the university.
Michigan House Lawmakers recently concluded a separate inquiry into MSU’s handling of sexual assault. In a six page letter to House Speaker Tom Leonard, lawmakers say they found holes in MSU’s Title IX compliance.
“As these findings indicate, there are clear gaps in current law, regulations and policies that help enable an environment which, unfortunately, has proven ripe for abuse.”
Lawmakers proposed some potential changes to state law on sexual misconduct, including:
- Expanded mandated reporter laws
- Creating a new crime for using one’s authority over another to prevent the reporting of criminal sexual conduct.
- Encourage universities to submit 5-year Title IX improvement plans.
In the meantime on campus, interim University President John Engler has announced the creation of the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Expert Advisory Workgroup and events on campus are scheduled through April as part of ‘Sexual Assault Awareness Month.’