Michigan State sought to end federal oversight, delayed sending Nassar files

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MSU professor explains why she resigned as faculty rep (3:43)

Michigan State professor Sue Carter tells OTL she resigned from her position as Michigan State's faculty athletic representative because of the university's mishandling of Larry Nassar's case. (3:43)

Michigan State University, under U.S. Department of Education oversight since 2014 because of its mishandling of sexual assault and gender discrimination cases, asked federal officials last fall to end their monitoring of the university because administrators had been acting in "good faith" and had "gone above and beyond" in meeting standards laid out by federal officials, according to documents obtained by Outside the Lines.

The Oct. 10 request was rejected outright by federal officials for several reasons, but in large part because of how the university has handled sexual assault allegations against former MSU athletics physician Larry Nassar. The documents obtained by Outside the Lines show:

  • Michigan State administrators in 2014 did not notify federal officials that the university had dual Title IX and campus police investigations of Nassar underway even though federal investigators were on campus that year scrutinizing how MSU dealt with sexual assault allegations.

  • MSU administrators still have not provided to federal officials all documents related to the Nassar allegations.

The Department of Education first became involved with Michigan State in 2010, when its Office for Civil Rights offered informal guidance to university administrators as they came under media scrutiny after a female student reported that she had been raped by two Michigan State basketball players. The woman filed a federal complaint about MSU's handling of her case in 2011.

In 2014, another female student alleged that MSU had mishandled a sexual assault allegation she had made, and she, too, filed a federal complaint. Based upon both complaints, the Office for Civil Rights opened a formal investigation.

Federal investigators visited the campus and reviewed documents in 2014. That year, a recent MSU graduate reported that Nassar had assaulted her under the guise of medical treatment. MSU campus police and Title IX investigations began. Federal investigators were not told of the allegations at the time, according to the correspondence obtained by Outside the Lines. Nassar was cleared in both investigations.

Even without knowledge of the Nassar allegations, the Office for Civil Rights investigation into how MSU handled sexual assault and gender discrimination cases ended with findings that MSU had fostered a "sexually hostile environment" on campus. Under terms of a 2015 agreement with the Office for Civil Rights to settle the findings, MSU administrators faced a litany of requirements and continuing federal oversight. One of those requirements mandated that the university provide the Office for Civil Rights notification and documentation of all prior complaints of sexual assault and harassment by a January 2016 deadline.

The records obtained by Outside the Lines show that MSU did not do so until almost a year later. Among the documents not provided by the deadline: reports made against Nassar.

On Dec. 14, 2016 -- almost three months after accusations against Nassar had been reported in the media and after MSU had fired him from his position as an associate professor in the College of Osteopathic Medicine -- an attorney from the Michigan State general counsel's office wrote to federal officials and pointed out an "unfortunate oversight": University officials had reviewed everything they had been sending federal investigators and had determined that "we could not locate the [Nassar] file on the list. I do not know how it was missed."

The attorney, whose name is redacted from the documents obtained by Outside the Lines, apologized and speculated that the missing file could have been the result of a staff transition within the MSU Title IX office.

Although Nassar's name was also redacted from the documents Outside the Lines has obtained, sources confirmed his was the case referenced in the correspondence.

Four months later, on March 17, 2017, the Michigan State general counsel's office again wrote to the Office for Civil Rights, this time saying it had found an additional eight reports; they, too, had been "erroneously excluded," according to the email obtained by Outside the Lines. It's unclear whether those files pertain to Nassar or other MSU sexual assault cases. The author again apologized and indicated that there would be further review.

Outside the Lines has learned that MSU still has not provided the complete Nassar paperwork. On Jan. 17 -- 13 months after MSU acknowledged the "unfortunate oversight" -- an attorney with the Office for Civil Rights wrote Michigan State to further inquire about the review of those missing files, because the office had not received any additional documentation. A university attorney responded by email later that day promising an update by Jan. 31.

Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Thursday after the Outside the Lines report published that "my heart breaks for the survivors of Larry Nassar's disgusting crimes. What happened at Michigan State is abhorrent. It cannot ever happen again -- there or anywhere. Students must be safe and protected on our nation's campuses. The Department is investigating this matter and will hold MSU accountable for any violations of federal law."

MSU spokesman Jason Cody did not answer specific questions about the documents obtained by Outside the Lines but said in a statement: "MSU is committed to taking the right actions to create a culture that provides a safe environment for all of its students."

The U.S. Department of Education can impose sanctions on educational institutions for not complying with its directives, which can include restricting federal funding. If school officials do not comply, federal investigators have the option of reopening a case and potentially can refer it to the U.S. Department of Justice for enforcement.

As part of its agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, reached on Aug. 28, 2015, MSU officials had to revamp their entire administrative approach to sexual violence, harassment and gender equity issues. Regular and comprehensive notifications and updates of MSU's progress are legally required under the settlement, known officially as a "resolution agreement." The agreement effectively created a three-year monitoring period that is to end this year.

MSU officials sought to end the monitoring period early last fall as they faced Nassar-related lawsuits and widespread calls for greater administrative transparency.

"Michigan State University has adhered to its resolution agreement in good faith and completed the requisite actions, and in most respects, has gone above and beyond its requirements," the MSU letter to Candice Jackson, the OCR's acting assistant secretary in Washington, D.C., states. By sending the letter to Jackson, MSU bypassed the attorneys in the OCR regional office in Cleveland that it had been reporting to since 2010. The letter states that the university has been working with OCR officials "over an extraordinarily lengthy period of time" and that "continued monitoring is both unnecessary and inconsistent with new legal developments" that had been put in place under DeVos.

The letter states that "the university has not approached this as an exercise in 'checking boxes,' but rather has embraced this as an opportunity to drive culture change." Michigan State, the letter continues, "has implemented case management systems to provide robust data analysis and reporting, which has facilitated transparency in reporting ... ."

Nine weeks later, the OCR denied Michigan State's request, in part by citing the still-missing Nassar files and the fact that the OCR had learned of allegations against Nassar only after MSU had consented to the resolution agreement.

The OCR response accuses MSU administrators of essentially improperly arguing that the university should be let out of the agreement because the appointment of DeVos as education secretary and new guidance provided by her had rendered many of the office's prior requirements invalid. But the guidance issued in September actually states that current resolution agreements remain binding. In the letter, the OCR also reviews many of the initial findings that led to the resolution agreement in the first place.

"OCR must continue to monitor the agreement to ensure that the university addresses the issues ...," the letter states.

The OCR letter states that some of MSU's actions have been "insufficient to satisfy the agreement." It closes by focusing on the missing Nassar-related documentation and cites MSU's reference to it as an "unfortunate oversight."

"To date, OCR has not received any additional information with respect to the university's compliance."

When contacted by Outside the Lines on Thursday, a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Education said the agency would issue a statement later in the day.

Nassar, 54, pleaded guilty in November to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with victims as young as 6 years old and was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison Wednesday, which will begin after he completes a 60-year sentence he is serving for pleading guilty to possessing child pornography. More than 150 women are now suing Nassar, Michigan State and other entities, claiming they were sexually assaulted by him.

Michigan State campus police and Michigan State's Title IX office did not formally begin investigating him until 2014 -- 17 years after the first complaint was made to a Michigan State coach. Nassar remained employed at MSU until September 2016, a few weeks after a former Spartan gymnast had filed a criminal complaint against him with campus police.

For months, Michigan State officials, including then-president Lou Anna Simon, have been criticized for a lack of transparency and for not properly handling sexual assault allegations made against Nassar. Several survivors of Nassar's abuse excoriated Simon and Michigan State during Nassar's sentencing hearing this month, repeatedly saying that MSU's inaction let Nassar thrive at MSU and that he was able to continue abusing scores of young girls and women as a result.

Nassar saw patients for 16 months at Michigan State while he remained under criminal investigation. At least a dozen young women and girls have reported to police that Nassar assaulted them after he was allowed to return to work.

Simon, who officially resigned under pressure Wednesday, was defiant to the end, saying that as "tragedies are politicized" someone had to take the blame. Further, she praised her campus police department's handling of Nassar-related matters and stated unequivocally that "there is no cover-up."