Tuesday, June 18, 2024

A look into the work environment at MSU's Title IX office

Four ex-employees of the Office of Institutional Equity said their supervisor created a toxic work environment.

June 9, 2021
<p>Michigan State’s Office of Institutional Equity is located in Olds Hall on campus.</p>

Michigan State’s Office of Institutional Equity is located in Olds Hall on campus.

Chrissy Weathersby Ball went to MSU as a full-ride scholarship gymnast. She was injured when she arrived at MSU in 1996 and was sexually abused by ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar.

Ball was injured for the two years she competed until she took a medical disqualification after her sophomore year. She said a knee injury had made it so she could barely walk and severely broke her other leg because she was favoring it. 

At the Feb. 12 Board of Trustees meeting, Ball named ex-strength and conditioning coach Tim Wakeham as a coach that sexually abused her. She made a complaint against Wakeham to MSU OIE in 2018, emboldened by other Nassar survivors who had spoken out. 

If an MSU student is sexually harassed or assaulted, the incident can be reported and it first goes to MSU’s Office of Institutional Equity, or OIE. OIE investigates the case and writes a report before the case goes on to other offices for a hearing and verdict. 

“My overall experience with Title IX was complete hell. It was a complete nightmare,” Ball said.

She said her investigation and hearing combined lasted over 400 days, and that the OIE office gave Wakeham numerous extensions, which delayed the investigation. 

Initially, Ball said she thought OIE took her complaint seriously and removed Wakeham from his position immediately, but later found out that wasn’t the case. 

According to an article in the Lansing State Journal, or LSJ, Wakeham was put on paid administrative leave Oct. 3, 2018. According to MSU’s schedule builder, Wakeham was listed as teaching two independent studies in the summer of 2018.  

Her hearing concluded that Wakeham had violated Title IX, but according to the LSJ, Wakeham received two years of unpaid leave, which would act as a bridge to retirement, about a month before the case was resolved in October 2019. Eventually, Wakeham’s retirement was revoked and he was fired. 

Ball’s case is emblematic of common issues within MSU’s OIE, which often had long timelines and left survivors in the dark about the status of their case. 

Four former employees of MSU OIE, who preferred to remain unnamed for employment reasons, alleged that some of these issues could be partially attributed to a toxic office environment created by Debra Martinez, who is the Director of intake and RVSM Title IX response and investigations, as well as the Senior Deputy Title IX Coordinator.

They said her behavior contributes to OIE’s inability to properly respond and investigate instances of sexual harassment or assault.

Effectiveness of OIE

In the last few years, MSU has made multiple attempts to reconcile its shaky past with sexual misconduct policies, including a review of its Title IX policies by law firm Cozen O’Connor.

On MSU's website, it states the law firm says that MSU has “dedicated significant resources to the effective implementation of Title IX requirements and that such steps are vitally important to the continuation of a responsive and effective Title IX Program.” 

Other reviews regarding MSU’s policies are the Office of Civil Rights report on Nassar and the Clery Report that have come out in recent years. The Nassar report, a letter of findings sent from the Department of Education, documents the school’s failures to follow Title IX policies at the time. 

The report includes information from a 2014 university survey of 1,000 MSU freshman and transfer students regarding sexual harassment, violence and assault. When asked who they would report an incident to first, less than 1% said the Title IX office, and 55.8% of students were not aware that they could go to the Title IX Office to report such incidents. 

In MSU’s 2018-19 academic year Know More Survey, 7.3% of sexual assault disclosures, 0.7% of sexual battery disclosures and 29.7% of rape disclosures were to the OIE office by the survivor themselves. In the same year’s Title IX report, the school reported that there were 1,142 RVSM reports made. 

In the 2018-19 academic year, more than 60% of RVSM cases were closed due to non-participation while less than 10% were closed because the investigation was completed. 

Tanya Jachimiak, Associate Vice President and Title IX Coordinator for the Office for Civil Rights and Title IX Education and Compliance, also said OIE is starting to evaluate its processes because they know that underreporting is a chronic issue.

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This evaluation includes hiring a director of strategic initiatives and institutional effectiveness who will decide what metrics are required to evaluate the effectiveness of OIE.

Survivor’s stories: long timelines and no response 

An MSU graduate student, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, was sexually assaulted in 2018. Their case lasted 323 days, and in that time their assailant was allowed to graduate from MSU with a Ph.D. 

According to the Lansing State Journal, law firm Cozen O’Connor noted that long investigation times were an issue with the process in a review MSU hired them to carry out in late 2019. According to the firm, the average time for the entirety of the Title IX process to be completed was 361 days. 

The graduate student also went through with a criminal case at the same time. They said the police completed their interviews in 2 weeks, while OIE took about 300 days. Cozen O’Connor notes that fact-gathering was a spot of delay in the process, lasting anywhere from 10 to 17 months. 

According to MSU’s own policy, investigations should take no longer than 90 days and a hearing should commence no longer than 60 days after the conclusion of an investigation. 

“(The police officer) told me that he would fight for justice for me,” the student said. “Which is something that I was not expecting at all, just the warmth and empathy that he treated me with. And then I went and reported to OIE and it was just so cold.”

The student said OIE often wouldn’t give them updates unless they called the office and continuously delayed the process in favor of the respondent. The student also said that no measures to keep them safe were put in place during the investigation, and they had to go to court and get a restraining order. 

During this time, their assailant also threatened to sue the student for defamation. 

By the time there was a university hearing, the student's assailant had already pled guilty in court to assault and battery — a lesser charge to avoid registering as a sex offender. He was found in violation of the university’s RVSM policy, although he had already graduated with a Ph.D. He was initially banned from campus for two years, but after an appeal from the survivor’s lawyer, he was banned from campus for three years and not allowed to enroll at MSU ever again. 

“I reported this before he graduated,” the student said. “They let him graduate anyway, thus unleashing this guy with a Ph.D. now into the world that’s capable of this thing and putting the MSU stamp of approval on it. So, it just felt like, to me, a complete waste of time. No justice was done in this process.”

The student said this experience made them consider transferring schools, and that they lost a year of professional development during their investigation and hearing. 

The student said they wouldn’t trust MSU to protect survivors of sexual abuse. They filed a complaint against MSU with the Department of Education because of their experience with the MSU Title IX Office.

The student's complaint states that MSU failed to complete the investigation in a “reasonably prompt” timeframe, showed partiality to the respondent, failed to provide an “adequate and reliable” investigation and failed to provide regular status updates. 

Martinez is one of the names listed on this complaint. It alleges that Martinez, along with others at OIE, knew about the survivor’s criminal case and guilty plea, yet it was “summarized in a footnote rather than in the body of the third preliminary investigative report and the plea was not considered as evidence.”   

Office Culture of OIE

A group of four former OIE investigators all said Martinez created a toxic work environment which contributed to inefficiency in OIE. They said she was the cause of long investigation timelines, that she was rarely in the office and when she was, did not work; and that she lacks cultural competency and has made racially insensitive comments to employees. 

The former employees worked at OIE between 2016 and 2020, with some arriving or leaving before others.

These employees said one reason cases would take so long is that Martinez would take weeks to review the cases after they submitted them.

Spreadsheets provided to The State News from one of these employees details seven cases’ timelines from the summer of 2019. These show that Martinez took three months to initially review one case and return it to the investigator, with other initial reviews ranging from five to 27 days. Of the seven cases, three were over the 90-day investigation deadline outlined in MSU’s policy

Law firm Cozen O’Connor noted that a spot of delay in the Title IX process was getting from a preliminary report to a final report; which could take from four months to a year, according to the Lansing State Journal.

Elizabeth Abdnour worked in OIE from 2015 to 2018 and is now a civil rights lawyer who focuses primarily on Title IX, race discrimination and disability discrimination. She often works with clients who go through the Title IX process at MSU. 

She worked at OIE when Martinez was an investigator and left before she was promoted to a supervisor position, but said while working with clients, investigators often said they were waiting on Martinez to review their case. 

The former employees also said Martinez would frequently be out of office, and when she was in the office she often not be working, instead she would watch “Project Runway” or “Game of Thrones.” They said her behavior was allowed to continue due to the constant fluctuation of leadership, which saw multiple leaders come and go — most recently, Rob Kent and Melody Werner.

Abdnour said that when she was there, their supervisor allowed for flexible hours, but that Martinez still stuck out among those in the office. 

“There was definitely this common, I don’t know if it’s knowledge or attitude in the office, that Deb is never here,” Abdnour said.

One case that former employees said is emblematic of Martinez’s behavior in the office is the case of Hannah Smith, who was featured in an On the Banks article for filing a complaint with the Department of Education after her investigation took over 450 days. 

Martinez was initially the investigator for this case, and according to On the Banks, Smith would only receive updates after she had reached out to Martinez first. According to MSU’s Title IX and RVSM policy, investigators should provide bi-weekly status updates to both the claimant and respondent. 

After a month of not contacting Smith, Martinez was promoted to OIE’s Assistant Director in the midst of Smith’s investigation. She told Smith that meant she would no longer be handling cases, including Smith’s, and her case was sent to an investigator with an outside firm the school had contracted. 

When the On the Banks article was published, the former employees said that Martinez said, “This is just a girl trying to make a name for herself with Liz (attorney Elizabeth Abdnour) fanning the flames.”

According to the former employees, the behavior detailed in the On the Banks article was consistent with how Martinez operated at OIE. Abdnour also said that as an investigator, Martinez often had the longest timelines. 

They said this lack of competence and her long timeline made it frustrating for them when other investigators who had come to OIE with ten to 20 years of experience never received the position of senior investigator. 

Abdnour, who worked at OIE when Martinez was hired as an investigator, said she hadn’t been in favor of Martinez’s hiring. 

“I thought there were other people who were more qualified and more culturally competent who interviewed and I didn’t think she was one of the best choices,” Abdnour said.

When Martinez was promoted from a senior investigator to deputy director in July 2018, former employees said it was without an interview, and they didn’t feel like she had the experience to do it. Some were also given Martinez’s old cases left from when she was an investigator, some of which were 300 to 400 days old.

Another issue that both the former employees and Abdnour highlighted was that the OIE office currently has no investigators of color. OIE could not be reached for comment on this issue. 

According to a report from the Lansing State Journal, OIE found violations in less than 1% of all discrimination complaints based on skin color or where the claimant was from. The employees said this report provided context to the environment of OIE.

Former employees also said Martinez would often say racially charged comments, including when one former employee corrected Martinez for calling her biracial and said she preferred multiracial or mixed race. She said that Martinez responded by saying, “I never liked the word mixed, it always reminded me of a dog.”

This same employee said she has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to her time employed at MSU OIE. 

One employee said she made complaints about Martinez to both Werner and Jachimiak, as well as in an exit interview with Jachimiak where she brought up Martinez again. 

Jachimiak denies ever receiving any complaints. 

“I have not received any complaints,” she said. “If I did, I take all such complaints very seriously and we would address them.”

Martinez has been reached out to directly three times since April for an interview and did not respond for comment at the time of publication. OIE communications also said they would set up an interview, but have not followed up in five days.

Both Abdnour and the former employees noted MSU OIE’s lack of investigators of color.  Abdnour said that if the OIE office doesn’t see having no investigators of color as an issue, then she doesn’t know how or if the office will be able to heal or improve.

OIE did not respond for comment on whether or not there are any investigators of color at the time of publication.

“And they apparently don’t because they’ve chased out all of their investigators of color,” Abdnour said.

Abdnour said she thinks the issues present within OIE are emblematic of a larger issue within MSU — loyalty to the institution. 

“I think that’s part of what’s going on here with Deb (Martinez),” Abdnour said. “She’s been loyal to the institution since she’s been there, and so they overlook a lot of this. I mean, I think what needs to happen, is that there needs to be a cultural change at the president level, at the top going down, where what is valued is performance and what people are actually doing.”

Editor's note: The cases highlighted were before MSU's Title IX policy changed in August 2020.


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