Friday, June 5, 2020

State, federal government pushing legislation in wake of Nassar

March 22, 2018
MSU Interim President John Engler makes his appearance at the Senate's higher education subcommittee meeting on March 15, 2018 at the Boji Tower in Lansing. (Nic Antaya | The State News)
MSU Interim President John Engler makes his appearance at the Senate's higher education subcommittee meeting on March 15, 2018 at the Boji Tower in Lansing. (Nic Antaya | The State News) —

In the wake of allegations of MSU's mishandling of the ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar sexual abuse case, legislation has already been introduced on both the statewide and national level to ensure a similar situation will never happen again. 

Some of these bipartisan bills have already been passed through the Michigan Senate and must wait to be voted on in the House of Representatives and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder before they can become laws, while some have only been introduced. 

While all of this new legislation continues to be debated and remains pending, Nassar has been in prison for more than a month. These bills, focused around giving victims of sexual abuse more time to sue, increasing punishment for those who fail to report suspected abuse, eliminating governmental immunity for those who committed criminal sexual conduct and more, continue to be introduced, as the MSU community awaits change. 

And while MSU Interim President John Engler is against some aspects of these Nassar-inspired bills, other members of the MSU community, as well as Michigan legislators, show support for them. 

What has the Michigan Senate done? 

On March 14, a package of 10 bills related to Nassar and supported by survivors was passed in the Michigan Senate. It is unclear when the bill package will move to the House of Representatives to be voted on. 

In Senate bills 871-873, the Michigan Senate voted to retroactively give victims of abuse more time to sue. These bills seek to "eliminate the statute of limitations on second-degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC) involving a victim under 18 years old" and allow "an indictment for third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a victim under 18 to be filed within 30 years after the offense or by the victim's 48th birthday," the bill analysis states. 

Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, and the sponsor of Bill 872, said he wanted to be a part of the package of bills because he has been working on making changes to the civil statute of limitations for about two years. He said he believes having the survivors help craft the legislation has helped create “wide bipartisan support” for the bills.

“For decades, women and men at Michigan State University were told to keep their mouths shut and they were told to not come forward with their personal stories,” Knezek said. “I felt it was really important that the Senate do our job to help provide a voice to those who had been denied that for so long.” 

The Senate voted to amend the Child Protection law in bills 874 and 880, specifying that those who are "required to report suspected child abuse or child neglect" are guilty of a felony is they knowingly fail to report it if they had direct knowledge of the abuse. 

Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who sponsored bills 874 and 880, said he was inspired to propose this legislation because it is "incredibly horrible" that some people do not report sexual assault.

“The package of bills does many things," Jones said. "It increases the statute of limitations so the victims can seek justice, it strengthens the penalties for people that don’t report these types of crimes and, hopefully, it will wake people up. We can no longer have a culture of silence in our universities."

Bill 877 would eliminate governmental immunity for individuals and entities that have committed sexual assault. The bill analysis states that "a member, officer, employee, or agent of a governmental agency or a volunteer who engaged in sexual misconduct while employed or acting on behalf of the governmental agency would not be immune under the law from tort liability."

And bills 878 and 879, co-sponsored by Senators Curtis Hertel and Margaret O'Brien, would "prescribe an enhanced felony penalty" for those in possession of child pornography.

“I think that we want to make sure that we strengthen penalties on people who commit these horrible acts," Hertel said. "We (want to) make sure that the statute of limitations, both by criminal and civil sides, don’t stop children who are assaulted from seeking justice.”

Though this bill package has already passed in the Michigan Senate, another Nassar-related bill that could greatly affect the university waits to be passed. It is unclear when it will be voted on. 

Senate Bill 903 was introduced by Jones on March 15 and if passed, would give a higher penalty to mandatory reporters at the university level who fail to report sexual assaults.

Also known as the Postsecondary Student Protection Act, this bill aims to "require certain individuals to report suspected sexual assaults of postsecondary students; to provide for the protection of postsecondary students who are sexually assaulted; and to prescribe penalties."

One of the penalties described in this bill is making it a "felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than seven years or a fine of not more than $15,000, or both" for individuals employed by the institution who fail to report sexual assault that they know of.

"We know that if we change the law, but the university fails to change the culture on campus, this could happen again,” Knezek said. 

Knezek said he and the other senators made it a commitment to do everything they can to help survivors of Nassar’s sexual abuse find justice. 

What has been done on the federal level?

Though it has not yet been passed, an act that would affect universities across the country was introduced by U.S. Senators Gary Peters from Michigan, John Cornyn from Texas and Debbie Stabenow from Michigan on Feb. 15. It was written in response to the Nassar scandal and aims to "hold universities accountable for sexual abuse."

This bipartisan legislation, called the Accountability of Leaders in Education to Report Title IX Investigations, or ALERT, Act, would require universities to submit certification that the president and at least one member of the Board of Trustees had reviewed all sexual misconduct incidents reported to the school's Title IX office. 

What is the MSU and community response? 

When the bills were still being voted on, ESPN reported that Engler addressed the Senate, favoring parts of the legislation and asking senators to hold off voting on other parts until more "fiscal analysis could be done." A day after the Nassar-related bill package passed, Engler testified to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education

As previously reported by The State News, Engler said he did support certain aspects of the bill package, including the strengthening of punishment for those who knowingly failing to report suspected child abuse or neglect when they're required to. 

But he also said this bill package could push the attorneys for Nassar survivors away from the negotiation table. Engler also appeared to say that the lawsuits that continue to be filed against the university makes it difficult for the community to recover from the Nassar scandal. 

"The difficulty in all of this is obviously ... we've got litigation," Engler said at the subcommittee. "That narrative in the litigation is not about healing. Everybody else has got to get back to work, but there's 250 plaintiffs there, and that litigation is a challenge."

Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse, spoke out against Engler and his visits to the Senate. Denhollander said in her post that it was not her attorney that came to the senators about this legislation, it was her and other survivors. She wrote she was disgusted by Engler saying that the legislation wasn't about healing, was "driven by attorneys" and that "attorneys are essentially manipulating us women and puppeteering a narrative." 

"You aren't listening MSU and Engler. You haven't listened. And you continue to attack the survivor's character and motivations, and act as if we're puppets for the attorneys," she wrote in her post. "You are wrong. You have stood against and attacked us at every turn, and you have now stood against every child in the state that we desire to protect."

Knezek, one of the senators who worked with survivors to craft the legislation, said a lot of the legislatures’ frustration stems from Engler and other MSU officials wanting to delay the passage of the bills. 

“As recently as last week, going on record and attacking Rachael Denhollander, saying that she has no idea what she’s talking about,” Knezek said. “There is no one better positioned to talk about this issue than the survivors themselves.”

Besides the input from university officials, Jones said he has had “a great outpouring of people cheering on the legislation" from the community. Natalie Rogers from Reclaim MSU, an activist coalition working for institutional change at the university, said she believes that giving people who have been sexually abused the opportunity to come forward and have protection against their perpetrators is a step in the right direction.  

“Just the fact that anything is being done is really encouraging because of just the national conversations going on about sexual assault and sexual harassment right now,” Rogers said. “I think any kind of action is good for survivors.”

Now, this legislation that was inspired by Nassar and driven by the survivors awaits more deliberation.

"We choose to keep standing firm," Denhollander wrote on her Facebook page. "And we will keep choosing to stand firm. No matter the cost."

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