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Sep. 1, 2015

MSU improves timeliness of Title IX investigations as government report released

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, investigating Michigan State University since 2011 for its handling of student Title IX complaints, has found the university was not timely enough in resolving two of the cases, an issue OCR acknowledges MSU has improved significantly since the investigation began.

That conclusion, part of findings released today by OCR, already has been the focus of several campus initiatives, including the creation in April of a standalone office to investigate all discrimination complaints, the hiring of more investigators and the adoption of a revised Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct policy in January.

Also as part of its investigation, OCR reviewed previous student and employee grievance files not connected to the original student complaints. The office found that policy and timeliness deficiencies might have contributed to a hostile environment for some students and employees during the time period OCR reviewed, 2009 to 2014. MSU has taken strong steps to correct those concerns.

“Sexual assault and harassment are serious problems in society and on college campuses, including ours,” President Lou Anna K. Simon said. “No member of our community should be threatened by sexual violence, and we have made a commitment to be part of a larger societal conversation on this issue. We have been constantly making improvements, using various inputs to be better tomorrow than we are today.

“We did not let the process of the OCR investigations delay our progress, and we were pleased that changes we have made over the past few years address nearly all of the primary OCR concerns.”

Federal law and MSU policy prohibit the university from publicly discussing the particulars of any investigation that involves students. The OCR review focused on MSU policies and procedures in place at that time over the past four years, not on current versions.

“We have long understood that Michigan State is not isolated from sexual assault and harassment, domestic abuse, bullying, racism, and other social problems,” Simon said. “But we must continue to persistently and consistently improve the environment on our campus with regard to how we address sexual misconduct and relationship violence. And we owe that to every member of our community, from students to employees to families and, most importantly, to survivors.”

In addition to the Letter of Finding, the OCR also released today a Resolution Agreement that outlines steps MSU needs to take in how it handles complaints of sexual misconduct and relationship violence. That document, along with how MSU has already addressed or is addressing OCR concerns, can be found at http://cabs.msu.edu/_files/documents/ocr-annotated-backgrounder.pdf. A presidential statement can be found at http://president.msu.edu/communications/statements/sexual-assault.html.

“We continue to do an honest assessment of where we are and where we want to be,” Simon said. “We have made many changes, and we have devoted significant resources in addressing concerns. But we fully realize our work is not complete; we must continue to vigorously pursue all avenues for improvement.”

Some of those changes include:

  • Adopting in January 2015 a revised and expanded Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct policy.
  • Creating a standalone unit, the Office of Institutional Equity, to handle all discrimination complaints, including sexual assault and relationship violence. That includes the hiring of several new investigators.
  • Implementing mandatory training for all MSU faculty and staff.
  • Creating an MSU Sexual Assault Task Force, which met throughout 2014 and 2015 and submitted recommendations to the president, which will continue to be built on going forward.

Moving forward this fall, MSU will be following through on several initiatives, including:

  • In mid-September, the university will receive the results of a sexual assault climate survey administered in April by the Association of American Universities. Those results will help guide decisions and policies regarding sexual assault in the campus community.
  • MSU will be forming a new sexual violence advisory council, with representation from across campus.
  • Revisions are in the process of being made to the student conduct review panels that hear cases involving sexual assault and relationship violence.
  • MSU will begin a series of dialogue sessions focused on current events, such as sexual assault on college campuses, to create a space for students to express thoughts and feelings as a way to construct meaning around some of the larger issues playing out in society.

By: Jason Cody