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Analysis

It’s not just Larry Nassar: Michigan State University has a problem with rape culture

Just look at what's happened the last two weeks.

COLLEGE PARK, MD- JANUARY 28:  The Michigan State Spartans logo on a pair of shorts during a college basketball game against the Maryland Terrapins at The Xfinity Center on January 28, 2018 in College Park, Maryland.  The Spartans won 74-68.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
COLLEGE PARK, MD- JANUARY 28: The Michigan State Spartans logo on a pair of shorts during a college basketball game against the Maryland Terrapins at The Xfinity Center on January 28, 2018 in College Park, Maryland. The Spartans won 74-68. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***

It’s been 19 months since the sentencing hearing of former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, when hundreds of his sexual abuse victims and their family members confronted him with victim-impact statements, detailing for the world the extent of his crimes — and shining a light on the people who allowed his abuse to go unpunished for decades.

But even though Nassar is behind bars, rape culture still persists at Michigan State University.

After Nassar’s first sentencing hearing last January, and under a hailstorm of public pressure, former MSU president Lou Anna K. Simon resigned. That was supposed to signal a bright new day for the beleaguered school: A new era in which survivors would be listened to and the enabling of sexual abuse would be discouraged. The day after Simon stepped down, former Michigan governor John Engler was named the interim president. He turned out to be even worse. He once told a reporter that Nassar survivors were “enjoying” the “spotlight.” He was forced to resign soon thereafter, in January of this year.

The new MSU president, Samuel L. Stanley officially started the job at the beginning of this month. He said in June, soon after he was hired, that there was “healing beginning to take place on campus.” But Nassar enablers are still on the payroll, university officials are showing up to offer public support to a man once charged with sexual assault, and a judge ruled that it is “plausible” that MSU purposefully buried sexual assault claims against athletes.

And all of this news came out in the last two weeks alone.

Earlier this month, the Lansing State Journal reported that David Jager, a 39-year-old athletic trainer for Michigan State football, has been charged of attempted sexual assault, domestic violence, and lying to a police officer.

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The Journal reports that Jager is “accused of assaulting his girlfriend at Spartan Stadium in August 2015 and lying about it” and “charged with attempting to sexually assault a different woman in Lansing in February 2016.” The former two charges are misdemeanors, while the latter is a felony, meaning he faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Jager is one of 11 MSU employees now known to have had information about allegations of sexual abuse against Nassar before they became public knowledge, but failed to report them, according to a report by the Michigan Attorney General released last December. In 2015, Jager’s girlfriend told him that Nassar “groped” her, but Jager told her that Nassar had a great reputation as one of the “best in the world,” and told her to file a report if she felt uncomfortable.

MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant told the Journal that Jager has been on paid administrative leave since March 2018, though she didn’t specify a reason for the leave. So that means that Jager didn’t report allegations of abuse against Nassar, and is facing his own allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault, but is still collecting a paycheck from the university.

Then, just last week, former MSU basketball star Mateen Cleaves was on trial for sexual assault charges. There was a video of Cleaves dragging a nearly-naked woman back into a hotel room, twice, as she struggled against him and yelled, “help me, help me, help me.” A jury acquitted Cleaves on all charges. On the final day of the trial, Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo came to the court room to support Cleaves.

On Twitter, Rachael Denhollander — the first survivor to come forward and publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse — reflected on the message that Izzo’s appearance sent.

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“Apparently MSU officials CAN make it to court in sex abuse cases. Not on behalf of the victims though,” Denhollander wrote. “The day I gave my impact statement, MSU was in court down the street asking to dismiss our cases. When you show up, who you show up for, matters.”

Just one day after the Cleaves ruling, a judge across town issued another significant verdict in a sexual assault case involving MSU athletics.

Last year, 22-year-old Bailey Kowalski filed a federal lawsuit against the school, arguing that it had violated her rights under Title IX by mishandling her sexual misconduct complaint against three MSU basketball players.

In 2015, according to her lawsuit, Kowalski met some MSU basketball players at a bar, and was invited back to an off-campus apartment for a party to celebrate the team’s recent Final Four appearance. At the apartment, she says, three players took turns raping her. When she went to the MSU Counseling Center about a week later, she told a staff member that her assailants were basketball players, and was told, “If you pursue this, you are going to be swimming with some really big fish.”

Kowalski argues that her treatment was part of a larger pattern of MSU officials seeking to cover up sexual assault complaints against athletes. Michigan State fought to get the case dismissed, but just last week, Judge Paul Maloney ruled that the case could continue to discovery.

“The Court finds that the allegations in Plaintiff’s complaint render plausible her claim that MSU maintained official policies that left her and other female students vulnerable to sexual assault by male athletes,” Maloney said in his ruling.

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“Plaintiff has sufficiently pleaded that MSU allowed reports of sexual assault to be handled ‘off-line’ by the Athletic Department and outside the normal channels of Title IX investigations. Similarly, the attempts to cover up or otherwise obfuscate the University’s handling of sexual assault reports made against male athletes, the attempts to conceal the names of prominent male athletes when mentioned in police reports, and the attempts to discourage female victims from reporting their own assaults all tend to show that sexual assaults by male athletes were handled in ways that would minimize scrutiny and potential punishment for such acts.”

Meanwhile, Michigan State has not been cooperating with the state’s attorney general’s investigation into the school’s mishandling of sexual assault complaints, including those against Nassar — the Michigan State Board of Trustees has repeatedly declined to turn over privileged information to investigators.

And, to top things off, when former president Lou Anna K. Simon formally announced her retirement this summer, the school made a deal to pay her $2.4 million over three years, provide her medical and dental coverage, give her the title of “president emeritus,” and provide her with continued access to football and basketball tickets. Simon was the head of the university as one of the biggest sexual abuse scandals in U.S. sports history (and a related coverup) unfolded on her campus right under her nose. Her failures in office allowed the abuse to persist for decades. She currently faces two felonies for lying to the police about what she knew about Nassar’s crimes.

As survivors and advocates at MSU keep working towards healing, those in charge are working harder to make sure the bleeding continues.


UPDATE (9/27): Late on Monday night, Michigan State’s lawyers filed a 100-page motion, accompanied by 900 pages of exhibits, seeking to dismiss 37 lawsuits representing more than 100 Nassar survivors, according to the Detroit Free Press.

The motion argued that while Nassar deserved to be punished for his crimes, Michigan State was not liable.

“Although Nassar’s actions were repugnant and merit the heavy criminal penalties imposed upon him, the law does not support Plaintiffs’ attempts to hold the MSU Defendants liable for his wrongs,” the university said.