Tuesday, July 27, 2021

In 3 years, what changed about Michigan State’s sexual misconduct policies?

January 26, 2021
<p>Teal flags signed in support of sexual assault victims photographed on April 3, 2019. The flags were signed by at least 4,000 MSU students with words of support for survivors of sexual assault.</p>

Teal flags signed in support of sexual assault victims photographed on April 3, 2019. The flags were signed by at least 4,000 MSU students with words of support for survivors of sexual assault.

Photo by Mila Murray | The State News

Editor's note: The images in this story do not reflect Michigan State's policies or procdures, they represent efforts from community organizations such as The Army of Survivors,The Parents of Sister Survivors Engage (POSSE) to provide resources for survivors, raise awareness about sexual assualt on campus, and lead demonstrations to push for greater change and accountability at MSU.

Nearly three years ago, Larry Nassar, former USA gymnastics and Michigan State sports doctor, was sentenced to 175 years in prison after decades of sexual abuse.

Since Nassar’s conviction, MSU has made changes in personnel, policy and procedure. 

Today, MSU offers numerous inclusive programs to students, staff and faculty on campus within the Prevention, Outreach and Education Department (POE). 

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Programs include the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence (SARV) Prevention Workshop, Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct program (RVSM), MSU’s Center for Survivors, and MSU’s Sexual Assault Healthcare Program.

SARV is a sexual assault workshop that is required of first-year undergraduate students at the university to teach and define gender-based violence, explain university policies and resources available on campus and in the community, according to MSU’s POE website

MSU’s Center for Survivors provides many resources for survivors of sexual abuse in the greater Lansing area, including free and confidential individual counseling, advocacy, and support groups, according to the organization’s website. Through the center, survivors who have been sexually assaulted in the last five days can receive free medical services through the MSU Sexual Assault Healthcare Program

On Friday, Jan. 22, Lansing State Journal reported that Michigan State will review closed cases of sexual misconduct to create further policies to improve the campus climate. 

These changes and responses all followed MSU’s struggle to find leadership after ex-MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon resigned shortly after Nassar’s conviction after facing increasing pressure from both inside and outside the university. 

Simon was replaced by former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who resigned from the position in early 2019. Engler's tenure as president was controversial from the beginning, with the MSU Steering Committee publicly announcing that Engler was unfit for the position before his appointment.

During his tenure, survivor Kaylee Lorincz said that Engler tried to settle her civil lawsuit with $250,000 without a lawyer present. According to a 2018 report from the Detroit Free Press, Engler called the allegation “fake news.”

Engler also moved to end the Healing Assistance Fund, despite his sexual misconduct advisory workgroup advising him not to, according to an email The State News obtained in November 2018. 

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As of Dec. 2020, the Healing Assistance Fund is available in the form of expense reimbursement, according to the MSU website. Survivors and their families are eligible for the reimbursement, and the money can be used for out of pocket expenses related to outpatient mental health services, in-patient hospitalization with a mental health diagnosis and more. The fund cannot be used to cover hospitalization for conditions unrelated to mental health.

Satish Udpa, former dean of MSU’s College of Engineering, was appointed as MSU’s interim president the day after Engler’s resignation. Current President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. was chosen to fill the position in the spring of 2019 permanently. Former ASMSU president Katherine Rifiotis said at the time that student needs were prioritized in the decision to hire Stanley.

POE Peer Educator and sexual assault survivor Camille Hollenquest teaches SARV classes to first-year and transfer students at MSU. She also teaches Spartans Against Violence classes geared toward Spartan athletes. 

Hollenquest, in her second year as a peer educator, said her experience had been very positive teaching classes. 

“As a teacher of these classes, I think they are very beneficial,” Hollenquest said. “I visibly see the connections and the changes that I’m making daily on campus. … It’s very enriching knowing that people are actually taking these classes seriously, and they’re understanding how the climate on campus is changing for the better.” 

Online webinar workshops were a potential obstacle for interactive learning as many of the educators thought that students might be less engaged participating via Zoom. However, Hollenquest said she thought otherwise.

“I believe that COVID has, ironically, impacted the workshops, in a more positive way because the participants are in the leisure, in the comfort of their own homes so that they feel safe,” Hollenquest said. “They don’t have to have their cameras on if they don’t want to ... and they can also direct their questions to either me, the peer educator or everyone in the session, so they have that level of privacy as well.” 

Hollenquest said that she believes online engagement is higher than in person because the level of anonymity enables participants to be free of any shame or pressure to speak or ask questions. 

Women and gender studies senior Arianna Pittenger, a peer mentor for POE, said that students ask her and other educators about more ways to be involved with POE through employment opportunities or volunteer work. 

“Through this training, I can see that a lot of students are stepping up and want to be more involved,” Pittenger said. “I would say that over the time that I have been here … I see a lot more talk even outside of training about consent and what is acceptable and what is not. I would say that there is more comradery between students, as well as the training; students are really working to get all the information out of the training (as they can).” 

Psychology senior Emily Saxon, who is also a peer educator, undertook an extensive research project a couple of years prior on sexual misconduct prevention across college campuses in the nation, which was largely motivated by her frustration and shock after Nassar’s conviction. 

“To be honest, I set out with the intent to gather data about what other universities were doing in terms of prevention programming and gather data on what the best evidence-based practices for preventing sexual assault on college campuses,” Saxon said. “I sort of wanted to stick it to them (MSU) and say, ‘OK, here’s what I found. We need to do more.’” 

MSU Board Chair Dianne Byrum said significant change began with the shift in leadership.

Byrum said many new positions were filled, such as administrative positions, a new Title IX director and, most commonly known, a new president. The position of chief diversity officer was also implemented at the university for the first time. 

“It was very clear from the campus community that they wanted the president to be from the outside and not someone from Michigan State, and that was crystal clear,” Byrum said. “Whether we were talking to students, faculty, staff, alumni, they thought that the university was too insular and too soiled. If we were really going to drive change across the university broadly, then we needed to bring in people that had experiences outside of Michigan State.” 

Saxon used an extensive questionnaire to interview eight other universities that were comparable to MSU, many of which were from the Big 10. All universities, except for MSU, were kept anonymous.

 Saxon asked questions about mandatory sexual assault training, whether or not the workshops were in person or online, what kind of budgets the school had for sexual assault training programs, and so forth. 

According to Saxon’s report, published in Social Science Scholars Research: Volume 4, all nine of the universities had conducted a campus climate survey in the past five years, with specialized programs for “specific audiences (such as Greek life, LGBTQ and international students).” 

However, only six out of the nine schools required students to complete both online and in-person training. Only five of the universities’ prevention efforts are funded sustainably and only two of the universities offer “multi-year sexual misconduct prevention programming.”

MSU’s programs met all these criteria. 

“It turns out, MSU was actually the leader in a lot of the categories,” Saxon said. “I would say that from a student-to-student prevention framework, MSU is following best practices.” 

Pittenger encourages students to get active on campus. 

“You never know who a survivor is, and you want to be a good ally in any way that you can,” Pittenger said. “Take as much as you can out of training and work to build a better campus.”

This article is part of the 'We Can't Forget' print issue. Read the entire issue here.

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