Bill would hold universities to account for sexual abuse

Three United States senators have introduced legislation to hold universities accountable for sexual abuse and require university leaders to review sexual abuse cases involving employees.

The bill comes in the wake of fallout from a series of cases involving universities, including the Larry Nassar scandal – and in a context of heightened public demand for change fuelled by the Harvey Weinstein scandal and other high-profile revelations, and the rise of the ’Me Too’ movement which is pressing for an end to sexual violence.

The senators, Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats representing Michigan, and John Cornyn, a Republican representing Texas who is the number two Republican in the Senate, on 14 February announced that they are introducing legislation to hold universities that receive federal funding accountable for sexual abuse cases that threaten the safety of their students.

Following horrific abuses involving Larry Nassar at Michigan State University and Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University, the senators are introducing the Accountability of Leaders in Education to Report Title IX Investigations (ALERT) Act to require university leaders to certify that they have reviewed any reports of sexual abuses perpetrated by university employees.

They say the requirements are needed because in the case of both Nasser and Sandusky university leaders either failed to take action or claimed they did not know about reports of abuse by employees.

“Our colleges and universities must do more to protect the safety of our children, and we must hold them accountable when they fail,” said Senator Peters in a press statement announcing the introduction of the bill.

“Too many young people have suffered appalling harm from abusers who should have been stopped by university officials. I’m introducing this legislation to ensure that ‘I didn’t know’ will never again be an excuse for permitting monstrous abuse to continue under the watch of the officials we trust to look after our children.”

Senator Cornyn said university officials must be responsible stewards of students’ trust, especially when they come forward with unthinkable allegations of abuse. “This legislation would ensure reports of sexual misconduct against campus employees have been thoroughly reviewed by university leadership.”

Michigan State University (MSU) is facing multiple legal investigations and government inquiries into the way its leadership responded to allegations against Nassar, who was accused of abusing more than 200 women over two decades while employed as a sports doctor at MSU and as a USA Gymnastics team doctor.

On 24 January Nassar was sentenced to between 40 and 175 years in prison for seven counts of felony criminal sexual conduct involving abuse of athletes in his care. He had pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree sexual misconduct in two counties. He still faces 150 civil suits, some of which involve MSU.

Michigan State University’s president, Lou Anna K Simon, resigned from her post three weeks ago over allegations that the university failed to act on allegations of abuse by Nassar. Mark Hollis, the athletics director, also left his post.

On 9 February MSU leaders began a process of stripping tenure from William Strampel, the former dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, where Nassar worked as an associate professor until 2016.

Several victims stated they told MSU coaches, trainers and officials about the abuse at various points over the years but felt pressured to drop the matter or angry at the lack of action taken.

Senator Stabenow said when she met with survivors, they were very clearly focused on the future and making sure other young women never have to experience what they had gone through.

“This bill is just one step we can take to make sure all universities take sexual abuse more seriously and that their leadership is held publicly accountable.”

Under Title IX, colleges and universities that receive federal funds are required to establish clear procedures for promptly responding to instances of sexual violence on campuses.

They must also have a Title IX coordinator in place to oversee investigations, coordinate disciplinary actions, and ensure compliance with federal guidance.

Failed to take action

However, in both the Nassar and Sandusky cases, university leaders failed to take action or even claimed they were unaware of reports of sexual abuse by university employees, despite the fact that official Title IX or external investigations had been conducted.

The ALERT Act would require federally-funded colleges and universities to submit an annual certification to the Secretary of Education affirming that the university’s president, or equivalent officer, and at least one other member of the board of trustees have reviewed all incidents involving employee sexual misconduct that were reported to the Title IX coordinator at that institution in the previous 12 months.

The annual certification would also require confirmation that neither the president, nor equivalent officer, nor board member had interfered with or inappropriately influenced an ongoing investigation.

Jerry Sandusky, an assistant American football coach for the Penn State Nittany Lions, was indicted on 52 counts of child molestation in 2011. The charges related to the period 1994 to 2009. Three Pennsylvania State University officials – including the president, Graham B Spanier, and athletics director Tim Curley – were charged for failure to report suspected child abuse.

In June 2017 they were sentenced to short jail terms followed by home confinement for their roles in the scandal. Spanier is currently appealing his conviction.