Battling sexual assault at MSU

By Todd Heywood

Due to a reporting error, the original version of this story misidentified Juli Liebler. She is East Lansing's chief of police, not MSU's.

In the late hours of Aug. 29, 2010, a woman met two Michigan State University athletes at Wonders Hall. The three struck up a friendly conversation and decided to go to the men’s shared dorm room. What happened next has been a flashpoint of controversy at the campus and the surrounding community.

She says she was sexually assaulted. Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III says no crime was committed that night and declined to bring criminal charges. Student activists were outraged and protested at both MSU and across the street from the Ingham County Courthouse in downtown Lansing.

In summer 2011, nearly a year after the incident, the woman filed a formal Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights regarding this incident. And now, three years later, the feds have been on campus investigating this incident and two others — as well as the general atmosphere and attitude on campus related to sexual assault.

Over the past three years, MSU has responded with a more comprehensive policy to address the issue, both in reporting incidents and raising awareness. But while much has changed at MSU since the incident, some say it’s not enough to fully address the complex, troubling and often hidden crisis of sexual assault.

Despite the efforts to raise awareness among incoming students and restructuring the process that is followed after an assault takes place, sexual assault at MSU, like elsewhere in the country, is a vastly underreported crime. The number of forcible sexual assaults on campus was 15 and 20 in 2011 and 2012, respectively, but the number of students who received counseling from the MSU Sexual Assault Program were 176 and 241 in approximately the same time. (MSU reports cases based on a calendar year, while the Sexual Assault Program reports per fiscal year, which more accurately reflects an academic year.)

A student organization on campus says the university can be doing more, particularly in working with area police departments because sexual assaults do not stop at the campus border.

MSU is not alone in facing scrutiny related to how it is handling sexual assault and sexual violence. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in February that the federal government had 39 active investigations related to sexual violence on campuses nationwide. The federal government is also reviewing an incident that took place at the University of Michigan. And an April 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter to colleges has resulted in an 88 percent increase in reported sexual assaults.

In January, President Obama established a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to share best practices, increase enforcement and raise public awareness.

“The prevalence of rape and sexual assault at our Nation’s institutions of higher education is both deeply troubling and a call to action,” the president wrote in a memo announcing the task force. “Although schools have made progress in addressing rape and sexual assault, more needs to be done to ensure safe, secure environments for students of higher education.”

The increased federal focus raises the question of how much would have really changed at MSU, or any other campuses, had the feds not stepped in.

August 2010
The Wonders Hall incident was one of 14 cases in 2010 of forcible sex offenses reported under the federal Clery Act. Eleven of those reported cases happened in campus residential facilities. It drew attention because two high-profile MSU athletes were accused of perpetrating the sexual assault.

According to police reports from the time, the two men and the woman met in the lobby of Wonders Hall one late August night in 2010. They struck up a conversation and decided to go back to the men’s room. The victim said she had been drinking alcohol that night, but was not drunk. Once there, the three struck up a game of what amounted to strip basketball, requiring a player to lose an article of clothing with each missed basket. She removed a t-shirt because she was wearing a shirt underneath. But the game continued.

The victim, according to the police report, said the men began to deliberately miss baskets. They were soon both naked, while she remained clothed. When she missed another basket, one of the men said she needed to remove another article of clothing. She said “no,” the police report says.

She said once the men were naked, she felt as though she were trapped and unable to leave. She said one of the men blocked the door and turned out the lights in the room.

Once the three were in the dark, one of them told the victim to remove all her clothing, and she told police she felt she was “afraid for her safety” and began to remove her clothing. She stripped down to only her underwear. The two men then approached her, and one of them pulled her underwear off. The assault then proceeded.

The police report indicates she twice tried to end the sexual assault by putting on her underwear. Both times, the underwear was removed again. She told police she felt she was unable to leave the room because the two men were substantially larger than she was.

One of the men agreed to an interview with police, and he substantially supported the woman’s claims.

Dunnings decided not to bring charges, announcing a month later he determined “no crime was committed.” His decision triggered protests at the Veteran’s Memorial Courthouse in downtown Lansing that fall. Activists also appeared at the Breslin Center at various MSU basketball home games to protest the sexual assault, using signs and voicing disapproval.

Feds take on issue
As the university was handling the fallout of this assault, the U.S. Department of Education released a “Dear Colleague” letter to educational institutions across the country. The letter, dated April 4, 2011, announced a requirement that educational institutions be more aggressive and thorough in investigating allegations of sexual harassment, which also includes sexual violence.

“As you know, the Dear Colleague letter was sent three years ago, and MSU has made quite a few changes to its policies and processes, both in response to the letter and as we continually work to improve how we handle complaints involving sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual violence and how we educate students and the campus community,” said MSU spokesman Jason Cody.

Paulette Granberry Russell, the director of MSU’s Office of Inclusion, said the university was already implementing new policies and procedures when the “Dear Colleague” letter was released, dating back to the fall of 2010. Those new policies and procedures were based on technical guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

But the “Dear Colleague” letter was important, she said.

“Honestly, for many of us working in higher ed — and I daresay most of those that I interact with on a national level — while the guidance was out there regarding how you define sexual assault, the standards that you would apply, how you analyze cases that may be filed — it wasn’t as clear in terms of their expectations on investigations, and judicial processes and time limits and that sort of thing,” she said. “So the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, I think, brought quite a bit of clarity to the work we’re expected to do in those areas.”

What’s new
In fact, under the newly adopted policies implemented in 2011, responsibilities for investigations for all allegations of sexual harassment, including student-on-student sexual harassment, were handed over to the office of the Title IX coordinator. Previously, allegations of student-on-student sexual harassment were handled by student affairs. The resulting report from the office is vetted by the Office of General Counsel as well as the Title IX coordinator before it is sent off to the student judicial system. And now, the investigation report is given “deference,” unless it can be proven the investigators acted inappropriately.

In another first, the Title IX office also became the claimant in such judicial cases. Victims were still encouraged to participate in the process, but the Title IX coordinator’s office would bring a case with or without the victim.

And that has paid off, said Shari Murgittroyd, director of the MSU Sexual Assault Program. She is aware of some students who have been expelled from MSU as a result of sexual assault allegations in this academic year. MSU administration officials could not confirm this or provide specific numbers on how many students had been disciplined as a result of the student judicial process and the new investigation process.

A more controversial change came when the university also instituted a new policy requiring staff to report any suspected sexual assault or sexual harassment they might hear of. For instance, if a professor overhears a student discussing being sexually assaulted, the professor is required to report the case to the Title IX coordinator office. From there, the office contacts the victim, “usually by email,” Cody said. A victim is not required to respond to such an inquiry.

“In light of the Dear Colleague letter and our own best practices, this is the process we use. Our Title IX office and investigators are cognizant of not wanting to revictimize a complainant,” Cody said. “We believe this approach balances compassion for the alleged victim, security on campus and federal/legal reporting guidelines.”

Some have expressed concerns that the new policy risks re-traumatizing a victim by forcing them to relive an incident from long ago, or talk about an incident they are not ready to talk about.

“As a victim-advocacy agency, we do have those same concerns because a victim has already had power and control taken away during a sexual assault,” Murgittroyd said. “To then have mandatory reporting policies in place and be contacted by the university or the police after disclosing something very personal to an MSU employee (faculty or staff) can leave a victim/survivor feeling betrayed, exposed and unsafe. They may be afraid that university or police contact will ensue with the perpetrator which could cause retaliation and further violence.

“The good news here is that if a student is contacted by the university or police after they disclose a sexual assault, the student does not have to participate in an investigation.”

These changes are in addition to a news series of educational programs. In the past three years, some 20,000 incoming students have participated in a new program called SAFE, Sexual Assault First-year Education. In fall 2013, Granberry Russell said, 97 percent of incoming students participated in the program. The university has also launched trainings for staff on their responsibilities in addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints, provides educational seminars in classes and with various on-campus organizations and has launched an educational campaign called “No Excuse for Sexual Assault.”

The “No Excuse” campaign aims to educate the campus community about what sexual assault is, address common myths and provide clear explanations of issues related to sexual assault, such as consent and incapacitation.

Under-reported crime
The goal, Granberry Russell said, is to increase reporting of incidents of sexual violence on campus.

While she says it’s working, the numbers show sexual assault continues to be a significantly under-reported crime at MSU. While official reports from the university record fewer than 20 cases a year for the last three years, Murgittroyd’s group reports in each of those years to be working with over 100 victims.

Murgittroyd said the reason for the difference is “our office is a confidential resource for students. Meaning, when they come in for crisis intervention, advocacy or therapy, we do not report to the police or OFI.”

“Most individuals — approximately 80 percent — do not report to the police,” she added. “That is why the police-report rates of (criminal sexual conduct) are always so low and do not even come close to an accurate representation of the number of sexual assaults that occur in our community.”

In addition, the cases reported by MSU Police, in what is called a Clery Act report, only capture the cases that occur on campusowned property.

For 21-year-old MSU junior Lauren Gann, the university is still not doing enough about sexual assault. She said that until the university announced the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights investigation, there were a host of resources related to sexual assault she and other community members were unaware of. Those resources were presented in the notice of the investigation.

Gann, who is a leader with the student group MSU Students United, pointed out that sexual assault does not stop at the campus boundary — so the Clery Act reports of sexual assault are not nearly as indicative of the problem as they can be.

All police agencies are required by law to file annual reports with the FBI related to all of the violent crimes investigated by each department, including forcible sexual assault. Gann asked why MSU was not working with East Lansing and surrounding jurisdictions to develop a more comprehensive report on the numbers of sexual assaults reported to police in all the jurisdictions around MSU and which involve members of the MSU community.

“Sexual assault frequently extends outside of college campuses and into student housing, apartments and local bars,” Gann said. “Over the summer, there was an off-campus rapist who targeted MSU students. College campuses that are in close proximity to surrounding cities — for example, East Lansing and Lansing — should have a greater protection than what is offered within campus limits. This collaboration between local police agencies and universities will protect students even after they have crossed the street to leave campus and go home.”

East Lansing Police Chief Juli Liebler said her department would be open to discussing the creation of such joint reports, but MSU administration sources were not so open to the idea.

“I’m not sure that would be possible,” Cody said. “If you are talking about compiling statistics on all MSU faculty/staff/ students, we would have to query more than 80 counties in this state, nearly every state in the nation and countless countries around the globe. And other jurisdictions are under no obligation to report numbers laterally to other departments. In fact, I’m not sure other departments would be willing to. To do what you’re asking would take a large amount of effort and resources, and those efforts and resources would likely be better focused on survivors and prevention efforts.”

Granberry Russell, when asked the question, said her office was working with other police agencies to make sure they knew about MSU policies and procedures related to sexual assault “to the extent possible.” She did not respond to questions as to whether MSU should actively seek to better clarify the extent of the issues related to sexual assault involving the campus community and surrounding areas.

But at the end of the day, Cody said, the issue is stopping sexual assault altogether.

“To be blunt, one sexual assault is one too many,” he said. “Knowing the depth of the issue on campus and in the community is of course important, but as I said, I believe we need to focus our efforts on support, enforcement and prevention.”