Wednesday, August 5, 2020

House inquiry finds MSU enabled environment 'ripe for abuse'

April 5, 2018
Ex-MSU and USA Gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar raises his hand on the seventh and final day of his sentencing on Jan. 24, 2018 at the Ingham County Circuit Court in Lansing. (Nic Antaya | The State News)
Ex-MSU and USA Gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar raises his hand on the seventh and final day of his sentencing on Jan. 24, 2018 at the Ingham County Circuit Court in Lansing. (Nic Antaya | The State News) —

Note: This story was updated at 6:35 to include responses from MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant and survivor Amanda Thomashow.

The results of a House inquiry into MSU's handling of sexual assault accusations against ex-MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar were released on Thursday, detailing how gaps in university policies enabled an environment "ripe for abuse."

A summary letter, written by four state representatives from the Law and Justice Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, determined MSU "failed to properly investigate Nassar" in response to a 2014 Title IX complaint filed by survivor Amanda Thomashow. 

Biased testimony led to Nassar's clearance

The 2014 investigation into Thomashow's complaint cleared Nassar of wrongdoing, explaining that the university could not find that the conduct was sexual in nature.

The committees' report says this "erroneous" conclusion came about because the investigation relied on flawed testimony from witnesses — some of whom were hand-picked by Nassar and his boss, former dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine William Strampel.

Strampel was arrested on March 26 on charges of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, neglect of duty and misconduct of a public official for allegedly enabling Nassar's crimes.

"MSU failed to utilize truly independent medical experts to determine whether Nassar’s conduct was medically appropriate," the report reads.

The letter continued by claiming witnesses and investigators used "fallacious" reasoning — such as suggesting Nassar's treatments were medically appropriate because he is so well known — to clear Nassar.

Three witnesses — including one of his “very close friends," former MSU doctor Brooke Lemmen — were determined to have had a clear conflict of interest in testifying to the validity of Nassar's treatments.

Lemmen removed some of Nassar's patient files from the university at his request in September 2016, according to a police report from MSU Police Sgt. Andrea Munford. She later returned the files and told police about the situation.

A "confident" Nassar abused patients without explanation

The report found MSU's informed consent policy at the time to be inadequate, something Nassar "methodically exploited" to his advantage over the course of more than two decades, the report reads. 

Nassar appears to have become bolder in his actions as he grew to understand what he could get away with. After using pelvic models and informational materials to give patients a detailed explanation of his intra-vaginal procedures at the start of his career, Nassar's explanations became less and less thorough before disappearing altogether. 

By 2016, he testified to investigators that “unless the patient stops him, he is assuming the patient understands” his reasons for giving intravaginal treatments.

As a result, the inquiry recommended intravaginal treatment on minors not be "normalized."

In situations where such treatment is necessary, the report suggested the state create a standardized consent form, require the presence of another healthcare professional and require the use of gloves, among many other recommendations on the matter.

Inconsistent responses from MSU

The inquiry sought to determine why MSU handled Thomashow's 2014 complaint and a 2017 complaint from Rachael Denhollander differently, despite the facts that both accusations were against Nassar and were similar in nature. 

The university responded that the separate investigations into the complaints revealed material differences between the two. 

MSU claimed the testimony from Nassar and the three medical experts in the 2014 investigation — whose neutrality has been questioned — proved Nassar's external contact with breast and vaginal areas was part of a legitimate treatment.

The university said Denhollander's complaint, in which she alleged Nassar penetrated her and massaged her breast when she hadn't requested upper body treatment, indicated Nassar had violated the university's sexual harassment policies. MSU also indicated that the investigation into Denhollander's complaint proceeded with the knowledge of Thomashow's prior complaint as well as other survivors who had come forward.

The Title IX report sent to Thomashow as a result of the investigation into her complaint also differed from the version circulated internally and sent to Nassar. The version given to Thomashow did not include the potential need for corrective actions.

"In addition to a lack of transparency and fairness, this discrepancy demonstrates an office culture more focused on protecting the institution than survivors," the report reads. "MSU’s admission that this may have occurred in other cases is troubling."

Reactions to the inquiry

Survivor Morgan McCaul said she feels vindicated by the findings — like someone has finally listened to the survivors of Nassar's abuse.

"Our cries for accountability and transparency from MSU are finally being supported," McCaul said. "We have literally been calling for this for years at this point, and no one was listening, no one was taking it seriously, no one was doing anything about it. This is irrefutable."

However, McCaul said based on MSU's track record, she feels like the university will continue to maneuver and deny responsibility.

"I think at this point, they'll do that at all costs," McCaul said. "I don't think that they're preoccupied with finding the truth, and I don't expect them to change their tune now that they're being called out by lawmakers."

Megan Hawthorne, press secretary for Attorney General Bill Schuette, provided a statement on the findings.

"The Attorney General appreciates the work done by the Michigan House of Representatives," the statement reads. "The investigative team will be reviewing the report. The investigation being conducted by the Department of Attorney General continues to move forward."

Looking to the future

The report's release does not appear to be the end of the legislature's attempts to make sense of what happened at MSU.

"We plan to introduce a bipartisan package of legislation to effectuate these recommendations in the coming days," the summary letter reads. "We look forward to delivering to (Michigan residents) a comprehensive set of solutions to protect our children from sexual misconduct."

An extensive list of suggested policy changes were included in the letter.

Policy recommendations for early intervention included making it a crime to use a position of authority to prevent someone from reporting criminal sexual conduct, expanding the mandatory reporter law to include coaches and athletic trainers and prohibiting schools from taking action against students who report sexual assault.

Suggested reforms under a "justice for survivors" label ranged from expanding who can submit victim impact statements and requiring the presence of the defendant at those statements.

This is likely in response to Nassar's letter to Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina during sentencing, in which he claimed it was too difficult for him to sit through victim impact statements.

The report also included a plethora of suggested changes to university policy and criminal codes under "governmental accountability." A few suggestions from that category include giving the governor constitutional authority to remove officials from public university boards and encouraging public universities to develop five-year Title IX improvement plans.

Among potential reforms for college campuses are: prohibiting the use of impartial witnesses in Title IX investigations, preventing universities from giving different Title IX reports to the survivor and the accused and requiring an outside investigation when multiple Title IX complaints are made against an employee previously internally cleared for wrongdoing.

Preventative suggestions include requiring universities to notify police when investigating a complaint against an employee, withholding funding from universities that fail to comply with sexual assault prevention requirements and requiring all Title IX reports regarding MSU employees to be sent to the Board of Trustees.

MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant responded to requests for comment with a statement.

"MSU will be working with the House on its legislation and shares the joint concern of lawmakers who want to make sure the horrendous abuse that Larry Nassar executed cannot happen again," Guerrant's statement read.

Thomashow said she was greatful for the house and all those involved with investigating MSU. 

"It is clear the university has had many opportunities to do the right thing, yet they have chosen not to," Thomashow said in a statement. "MSU failed not only me, but also every single sister survivor and student on their campus when they mishandled my Title IX investigation in 2014.  Had MSU actually listened to me and taken me seriously four years ago, countless young girls and women would never have been sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar."

Thomashow said that, while mistakes were made and lives were torn apart, the suffering of survivors doesn't have to be in vain.

"The report submitted to Speaker Leonard, and the recent Senate legislative package give me hope that our institutions will make necessary changes to ensure a tragedy like this never happens again," Thomashow said in a statement. 


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