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Betsy DeVos imposes record $4.5 million fine on Michigan State over Larry Nassar case

Betsy DeVos
File photo of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (Erin Schaff/Copyright 2019 The New York Times) 
 

The Education Department is fining Michigan State University a record $4.5 million and requiring the school to make major changes after finding a "systemic failure to protect students from sexual abuse."

The public university has faced a reckoning since Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State sports doctor, pleaded guilty to sexual assault and since scores of women gave harrowing testimony about the abuse they suffered and about how school officials did not help them. That was followed by revelations about sexual harassment allegations leveled against William Strampel, the former dean of MSU's College of Osteopathic Medicine and Nassar's supervisor.

What happened at Michigan State was "abhorrent, inexcusable, and a total and complete failure to follow the law and protect students," said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who had launched investigations by the Office for Civil Rights and the Office of Federal Student Aid.

But some victims of Nassar and leaders of campaigns to reduce sexual abuse on college campuses said the penalty wasn't nearly severe enough given the extent of the misdeeds and the lack of response from university leaders.

Tiffany Thomas Lopez, who said she first reported Nassar's abuse to Michigan State in 1999, called the penalty "inadequate" and said she was afraid it would not stop other universities from hiding the crimes of sexual abusers. "If MSU had believed . . . me and other survivors more than twenty years ago," she said in a written statement, "at least 600 women could have been spared sexual abuse."

Michigan State President Samuel Stanley said Thursday that he had established an oversight committee that would comply with the Education Department's conditions spelled out in an agreement letter. The university signed an agreement with the Education Department to make major changes to the way it handles complaints and prevents sexual misconduct on campus.

"I'm grateful for the thoroughness of these investigations and intend to use them as a blueprint for action," said Stanley, who is the fourth person to lead the university since the scandal broke.

The Office for Civil Rights investigation concluded that Michigan State failed to adequately respond to reports of sexual misconduct by Nassar and Strampel, failed to take steps to protect students while complaints were pending and failed to act to end any harassment.

The Office for Civil Rights found that "administrators at the highest level of the University - the President and the Provost - had a long and disturbing history of failing to take any effective actions to address what was to become, over the course over 14 years, a torrent of reports and complaints about the Dean's sexually harassing conduct."

The report found that provost June Youatt "failed to take effective action to address the increasing number of comments from faculty and staff issues concerning the Dean's sexually inappropriate behavior." Strampel was reviewed and reappointed as dean three times.

On Thursday morning, Stanley spoke with Youatt and accepted her resignation.

"I want to thank each of the survivors who came forward and shared their stories," DeVos said in a written statement Thursday. "Doing so took an incredible amount of courage. Never again should incidents of sexual misconduct on campuses - or anywhere - be swept under the rug. Students, faculty and staff must all feel empowered to come forward, know that they will be taken seriously, and know that the Department of Education will hold schools accountable."

John Manly, an attorney for 200 of Nassar's victims, said the fine "is essentially a punch in the gut to my clients." The university's budget is more than $1.5 billion a year, he said. "A $4.5 million fine is just incredibly anemic. That's not a disincentive to anybody."

The fault for that, Manly said, "lies at Secretary DeVos's feet." He said she and her family are among the university's largest financial supporters. "This is not an accident."

Education Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said in response to Manly's comment, "This is the largest fine in Clery history."

The Clery Act requires colleges and universities that participate in the federal student financial aid program to maintain and disclose crime statistics and to warn students of an ongoing threat to their safety.

"To put this is perspective for you," Hill said, "Penn State's Clery fine was $2.4 million."

The Education Department in 2016 levied a $2.4 million fine against Pennsylvania State University in connection with the Jerry Sandusky scandal, in which the assistant football coach was convicted of sexually abusing several children over the course of more than a decade - with some of the assaults occurring in a campus locker room.

Jess Davidson, executive director of the advocacy group End Rape on Campus, said, "It's ludicrous that DeVos claimed she believes that sexual violence must never again be swept under the rug." Davidson has criticized the department's attempts to alter how Title IX is enforced, a proposal that would narrow the kinds of cases colleges and universities are required to investigate and allow schools to raise the burden of proof for accusers when adjudicating cases. Davidson said the department's proposed rule "would encourage every school in America to treat sexual assault with the same lack of accountability that Michigan State displayed."

Manly praised the investigators who "essentially made a finding that everything that Michigan State's leadership and their lawyers have been saying about this case are utter lies. They engaged in the systemic protection of a pedophile," he said.

Women have said they complained to Michigan State officials as early as the 1990s. Nassar was cleared in an investigation by the school in 2014 after a woman said he assaulted her.

In 2016, The Indianapolis Star broke a story about a woman who said she was assaulted by Nassar, leading several more victims to come forward. He was tried and sentenced to 40 to 175 years in connection with the assaults.

The university agreed last year to pay $500 million to settle lawsuits by 332 women who alleged abuse by Nassar.

The revelations about Nassar roiled the university, forcing the resignation of longtime president Lou Anna Simon and then of an interim president, John Engler, a former Michigan governor who was appointed in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal and charged with overhauling the school's culture. Engler angered many victims of sexual assault with comments such as one suggesting that the women were enjoying the spotlight after speaking out about the abuse.

Last month, Stanley took office as the 21st president of Michigan State.

Stanley announced that he would host meetings with victims of sexual assault in September and October to hear their concerns and suggestions for improvements at the university.The Education Department is also requiring Michigan State to investigate and consider appropriate sanctions against current and former employees of the university who, despite being informed of allegations of sexual misconduct by Nassar or Strampel, didn't take action. Documents show that over Strampel's 16 years as dean, students, faculty and staff reported his comments and behavior, according to the Office for Civil Rights; those complaints reached the highest level of the university's administration, "including the president, three provosts, advisors to the provost, several assistant provosts, the Office of the General Counsel, and administrators within the College."

This article was written by Susan Svrluga and Moriah Balingit, reporters for The Washington Post.

 

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