Sexual Harassment and Abuse at Michigan State University Raise Title IX Concerns

Girl Gymnast Chalking Hands

Larry Nassar, was once a renowned sports doctor for both Michigan State University and the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics team. But reports of sexual harassment and abuse from gymnasts he worked with ended his career. Now MSU is dealing with the public and legal consequences of inaction.

In this blog post I will review the criminal convictions of Larry Nassar, a doctor at Michigan State University, for sexual harassment and abuse. I will discuss the response of professors and students to the violations of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, and how the university responded to allegations of harassment.

Michigan State University Doctor and Gymnastic Coach Charged with 20 Years of Sexual Abuse

Michigan State University has come under fire in recent months because of how it responded to complaints of sexual harassment and abuse by sports doctor Larry Nassar. The complaints began in the late 1990s and ran through 2016, with athletes and students complaining that Nassar sexually assaulted them under the guise of medical treatment. The case includes complaints from several former U.S. Olympic gymnasts. In many cases, the minors' parents were present in the room when the sexual assault occurred.

The complaints resulted in lawsuits and even an internal investigation at MSU in 2014. However, Nassar kept working and the issue remained private until 2016, when the Indianapolis Star published an investigative report about the U.S.A. Gymnastics program. Responses to that report raised concerns about Dr. Nassar's conduct, including the story of Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who was abused at age 15. In total, more than 150 women came forward to testify at the sentencing hearings in criminal cases including charges of criminal sexual conduct and federal child pornography. He was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in prison, in what Michigan Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina called "a death sentence."

Title IX and a University's Response to Sexual Harassment and Assault

Title IX of the United States Civil Rights Act serves a similar role in schools as Title VII does in the workplace in preventing sex and gender discrimination. It prohibits sexual discrimination in all educational institutions that receive federal funding. This includes public and private K-12 schools, and most universities. It applies to all students, regardless of gender identity, and requires schools to take proactive and reactive steps to prevent and respond to sexual harassment against students by students, faculty, or other staff.

While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) handles Title VII sexual discrimination in the workplace, Title IX places school-based sexual harassment issues in the hands of the U.S. Department of Education. Each school is responsible for publishing a non-discrimination policy and designating at least one employee to coordinate compliance with the Department of Education's regulations applying the statute. Schools must respond promptly and effectively to allegations of sexual harassment or violence, and take immediate action if they know or have reason to know sexual harassment or violence has created a hostile environment.

Many larger universities have Title IX offices that investigate and respond sexual harassment complaints by their students. When they fail, it can be grounds for a Title IX complaint to the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education, or even a federal lawsuit.

Michigan State University's Response to Nassar Complaints Raise Title IX Questions

Larry Nassar continued to work for Michigan State University until the issue went public in 2016. Once Nassar pleaded guilty to the charges, public attention turned to the university and how it responded to the matter. Many of the women who came forward said that they had tried to file complaints at the school, but their concerns were ignored or downplayed. Larissa Boyce told CNN:

I told Michigan State University back in 1997. . . . Instead of being protected, I was humiliated. I was in trouble and brainwashed into believing that I was the problem.

This complaints of sexual harassment and abuse at Michigan State University have caught the attention a variety of public officials and sports regulating organizations. Many organizations and political branches have announced investigations into Dr. Nassar, Michigan State University, and its faculty:

  • The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)
  • United States Olympic Committee
  • Michigan's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (as to Dr. Nassar's medical license)
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Michigan Attorney General's Office
  • United States Department of Education

At the same time, Michigan State University is hurrying to take what steps it can to respond to these complaints after the fact. MSU President Lou Anna Simon resigned in January 2018, but even a week before, MSU issued a statement that "any suggestion that the university engaged in a cover-up is simply false." The Board of Trustees then named former Michigan governor John Engler as interim president to replace Simon. But even that choice has been questioned by students, faculty, and the press, because of Engler's response to sexual harassment allegations in Michigan prisons during his time as governor.

Federal and state laws mandate that sexual harassment and abuse must be taken seriously whether it happens at school or in the workplace. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys help employees facing gender discrimination on the job. If you are face a hostile work environment, we can help you make sure your complaints are heard. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to an employment discrimination attorney.

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