Kaylee Lorincz once dreamed of being a Spartan.
But despite being accepted into Michigan State University, she chose to go elsewhere, saying she “would have never felt safe” at the school where she says she was sexually assaulted.
Lorincz, 18, now a gymnast at Adrian College, said she was touched inappropriately during an appointment with former MSU sports doctor Larry Nassar for back pain treatment when she was 13 years old. She feels betrayed by Nassar and the university that employed him.
“I can only imagine how my life might have been different if only MSU had done their job in protecting me,” she told the MSU Board of Trustees in December 2017.
As Nassar faces potential life in prison for several first-degree criminal sexual conduct charges in Ingham and Eaton counties, a growing chorus of victims, political figures and members of the public are looking for more consequences for the university that employed a now-convicted criminal for decades without detection.
On Friday, the MSU Board of Trustees called for an external review of the university’s handling of the Nassar case, in an effort to be more transparent. They were also in a closed-door meeting Friday morning to discuss the issue.
Nassar was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison in December on charges related to child pornography. He is expected to be sentenced next week in Ingham County on seven criminal sexual assault charges, and is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 31 in Eaton County on three sexual assault charges. The seven victims in Ingham County said Nassar assaulted them either at his MSU sports medicine office or in his Holt home. The three victims in Eaton County say the incidents happened at Twistars, a gymnastics facility in Dimondale.
For some victims of sexual assault and harassment at MSU unrelated to the Nassar case, the national spotlight on Nassar and MSU signals a positive step towards accountability on concerns they’ve raised about the university’s handling of sexual assault allegations for years.
House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, called for MSU President Lou Anna Simon’s resignation in December. He’s a graduate of the Michigan State University College of Law, and is running for attorney general in 2018. But the university’s reaction to the case, he said, has hurt its reputation.
“In this instance and through this situation, their reputation has been tarnished… this is a huge black eye on the institution, and again, I believe that the House of Representatives needs to ensure that they’re being held accountable,” Leonard said.
House Democratic Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, and Sen. Curtis Hertel, Jr., D-East Lansing, have called on Simon to resign. The Senate Republican and Democratic leaders have called for the Board of Trustees to oust her, saying the senate had “lost confidence” in her ability to lead.
Leonard and other office seekers, including attorney general candidates Democrat Pat Miles and Republican Tonya Schuitmaker, are calling for an independent investigation of MSU’s handing of Nassar.
Attorney General Bill Schuette said Friday: “A full and complete review, report and recommendation of what occurred at Michigan State University is required and I will provide that. However, this week and the coming weeks are a time for the survivors of Larry Nassar to have their day in court, and I refuse to upstage their time for healing.”
Nassar may be MSU’s most prominent and prolific offender, but he’s far from the university’s only problem when it comes to sexual assault. For years, Michigan State has made public attempts and big gestures aimed at changing campus culture. For years, those efforts have fallen flat.
The university has vacillated between naming its demons and hedging their existence. It hired an outside investigator to drill down on the Nassar case, but won’t share what he found. MSU officials have expressed regret over the Nassar situation, while also distancing themselves to avoid legal culpability.
That’s been met with frustration from some of Nassar’s victims.
“He is a sick, evil man. Those who allowed his behavior to continue, notably Michigan State University, who knew and did nothing, are also sick, evil people are equally as liable,” said Melody Posthuma-Vanderveen, one of Nassar’s victims who testified against him at his sentencing hearing.
And questions related to the university’s handling of other sexual assault investigations, such as past issues with its federally-mandated Title IX process and recent high-profile sexual assault allegations involving members of the MSU football team, leave many wondering whether MSU’s attempts to overcome its sexual assault problem are enough to make a difference.
In 2014, an opportunity everyone missed
On April 13, 2017, Simon gave a statement to the Board of Trustees as the university grappled with the exposure of Nassar.
“I have been told it is virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator and pedophile, that they will go to incomprehensible lengths to keep what they do in the shadows,” she said.
But police records and legal filings paint a different picture: one of the university having a clear warning in the form of a 2014 complaint and potentially missing an opportunity to stop Nassar in his tracks.
Amanda Thomashow went to Nassar for a hip problem. She claims in a U.S. District Court lawsuit he massaged her breast and vaginal area and became visibly aroused.
She reported him to Dr. Jeffrey Kovan, the former MSU director of sports medicine, and filed a Title IX complaint.
Title IX is a federal gender anti-discrimination law that dictates how institutions receiving federal funds must protect students from sexual assault.
According to the lawsuit, the Title IX investigation determined she “did not understand the ‘nuanced difference’ between sexual assault and appropriate medical procedure and deemed Defendant Nassar’s conduct ‘was (not) of a sexual nature.'”
Thomashow said at Nassar’s sentencing hearing in Ingham County Circuit Court this week that she described the assault in no uncertain terms, but was not taken seriously.
“The investigation done by MSU was brief and sloppy, and it left me feeling disposable and worthless,” Thomashow said.
Although the MSU police still were investigating, Nassar was allowed to return to work until his firing in 2016. It was during this period that 20 more women alleged they were sexually assaulted, according to lawsuits filed against Nassar and the university. Nearly 150 women have filed lawsuits against Nassar and the university.
Lori Rassas, a New York-based HR consultant, employment attorney, and author of “The Perpetual Paycheck,” who isn’t involved with the case but spoke to MLive as an outside expert, said employers often defer to criminal investigations, which have a higher legal standard than internal ones.
But in this case, MSU let Nassar keep practicing after an initial suspension. In July of 2014, College of Osteopathic Medicine Dean William Strampel informed Nassar he would return to full practice but gave him a set of rules, including that he had to have another person in the room for sensitive procedures and limit skin-to-skin contact.
MSU spokesperson Jason Cody said Simon was told about the investigation in 2014, but with few details. It was Strampel, he said, who was responsible for the decision to allow Nassar to return to work.
Rassas keyed in on the fact that those conditions were imposed after the internal investigation cleared Nassar.
“If there’s nothing wrong, why are you imposing conditions? … they could say ‘well it’s a precaution,’ but to me, that’s sort of interesting,” Rassas said.
While Strampel knew about the conditions, Nassar’s direct supervisor, Dr. Doug Dietzel, did not, according to his statements in a police report. He told police in a March 2017 interview his thought upon learning about the guidelines from Strampel when Nassar was being fired in 2016 was “how do we enforce those things when we didn’t even know about them?”
Cody deferred questions on the guidelines and their enforcement to Strampel, who stepped down in December 2017 for medical reasons. He could not be reached for comment.
In 1997, when the university hired Nassar, the search committee for his position detailed his many attributes in a report, along with one drawback: “He lacks experience in dealing with administrative procedures in a university setting.”
In September 2016, as more allegations of his conduct poured in, he was fired for not following the rules Strampel put in place.
‘I’ve been saying this for years’
Victims of Nassar and other sexual assault crimes at MSU have not been assuaged by university efforts to curb sexual assault on campus. Many believe Simon — who has led the university since 2005 and is MSU’s first female president — and other top brass need to leave so the university can chart a new course.
Meg, who asked that only her first name be used in this article, is a former MSU student who filed a Title IX complaint in 2014 alleging sexual assault and repeated harassment by a former instructor. Her case took 253 days to complete, while another case involving the same person took more than a year. During that time, Meg said there were several situations where she wasn’t notified of his proximity to her workplace, making her fearful for her safety.
Eventually, her fears and frustration prompted her to leave MSU.
At the conclusion of the second investigation, the person was suspended from the university for two years, despite an initial recommendation from university investigators that he be expelled. Since her investigation began, Meg said she’s been fed up with the university’s handling of her case — she said the length of time it took, the punishment the man ended up with, and what she believes is a lack of concern in following up on enforcing his suspension runs counter to public assertions the university is doing better at protecting sexual assault victims.
Meg said the person’s suspension from the university is now up, but said she hasn’t been informed by university officials if he’s back at MSU, or if he is planning on returning to campus. Although she is no longer attending MSU, she said she hasn’t gotten the indication the culture at the university has changed.
“If they are doing anything differently, it’s because they had to, not because they chose to,” she said.
In 2015, federal officials concluded an investigation into MSU’s Title IX practices. They found the university was violating Title IX law and likely contributing to a “sexually hostile environment” on campus by not investigating sexual discrimination complaints fast enough.
Following that report, MSU agreed to 15 changes proposed by the federal government to improve their response to sexual assault on campus. That included creating the Office of Institutional Equity, speeding up Title IX investigations, and providing students and staff with more training.
The first phase of an ongoing independent review from the Kansas City law firm Husch Blackwell concluded the university was in compliance with federal law in 2017: current Title IX policy and procedures “reflect a strong and genuine institutional commitment to combating sexual misconduct, creating a safe campus environment, as well as compliance with Title IX’s legal requirements,” the report read.
The second phase of the review will focus specifically on the effectiveness of MSU’s crisis and advocacy support services, prevention and education programs, and awareness and outreach efforts, and is expected to be complete in spring 2018.
The school’s most recent Title IX report says the average time for an investigation has been reduced from 153 days between August 2014 to August 2015 to 104 days between August 2015 to March 2016. Following a change in the reporting model, the average time was 78 days between March-August 2016.
Meg said watching Nassar’s case play out was in many ways traumatizing for her because she recognized the difficulties his victims ran into when they were trying to get university officials to take them seriously. But she said the experience also has given her a cautious optimism that the sheer scope of the Nassar investigation could force the university to treat its handling of sexual assault differently.
“It’s given me this weird sense of empowerment, a sense that this finally could take them down,” she said. “People are finally actually listening, and hearing victims say this university is unsafe. I’ve been saying this for years.”
The university is facing a slew of civil lawsuits from victims of Nassar. In addition to those suits, MSU is named in multiple federal suits regarding the school’s handling of other sexual assault allegations. One, from 2015, alleges MSU routinely delayed investigations, and that the delays and appeals process allowed the accused to harass those who filed complaints.
Two more were introduced in late 2017. In a lawsuit introduced in September 2017, a male student accused university officials of violating his due process rights when he was accused of sexual misconduct and suspended. Another lawsuit, introduced in November 2017, alleges the university violated a student’s rights after she accused former football player Keith Mumphery of sexual assault.
The student, named Jane Doe in the lawsuit, said despite a two-year ban from campus following a Title IX investigation, Mumphery was allowed to attend an MSU sponsored football camp and golf outing the weekend of June 17, 2016. In a statement following the suit’s release, Cody said MSU does not comment on pending litigation, but will continue to work at improving how MSU prevents and responds to sexual assault.
In a Dec. 15 statement to the MSU community, Simon said the ongoing litigation regarding Nassar prevents her from responding fully to “a variety of allegations and accusations leveled at the university.”
“Because the university does not litigate in the press, such allegations may go largely unchallenged until or unless the cases reach open court,” she wrote.
Other sexual assault accusations and ongoing criminal cases against members of the MSU football team have prompted extensive investigation into how the school’s athletic department handled those allegations.
In June of 2017, three MSU football players – Josh King, Demetric Vance and Donnie Corely – were charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct stemming from an alleged incident in an on-campus apartment. King also was charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct. In a separate incident, football player Auston Robertson was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct. Their cases have not yet gone through the entire judicial process.
The players were removed from the team, the latest sexual misconduct allegations for MSU athletes swept out the door with them.
Moving beyond Nassar
University officials say they’re doing everything within their power to tackle the widespread issue of sexual assault. Cody said the university’s relationship violence and sexual misconduct policies “are constantly being reviewed and updated, outside of any specific incident or situation.”
Both Simon and the Michigan State University Board of Trustees have apologized to Nassar victims, and the board set up a $10 million fund for counseling and other mental health services for those who have been abused by Nassar. The university is working to establish the fund’s framework.
“MSU is moving forward with urgency to get this important work done,” Cody said.
The university has a web page outlining other ways school administrators are working to combat sexual assault, harassment and discrimination on campus, including support sessions through the school’s Sexual Assault Program, a review of MSU’s HealthTeam policies and procedures, and using a $40,000 grant from the state to increase sexual assault awareness and prevention among MSU’s Greek organizations.
But it’s not clear those efforts have made headway with students. Lorenzo Santavicca, MSU student body president, said the university has a sexual assault problem. There’s no trust from the students right now, he said, and the university needs a leadership change.
“We’re really quite nervous, now, looking ahead to how are we going to get talent, how are we going to get students to come to this university? This is a distraction,” Santavicca said.
Experts say MSU will have to take a hard look at its polices and demonstrate it understands the depth of the issues surrounding sexual assault, as officials work to combat it and convince the public they’ve done so.
John Collins, a high stakes leadership consultant and executive coach who’s examined human resources issues regarding sexual assault, harassment and discrimination in the workplace, said sexual predators or harassers tend to occur more in organizational cultures where a person’s rank commands influence and respect.
Calling perpetrators of sexual abuse the “symptom of an underlying disease,” Collins said in an ideal workplace there should be no ambiguity about what recourse a person has when abuse is taking place.
“A person like Larry Nassar is more likely to get away with what he is doing if the organizational culture does not embrace global, generalized respect for all people, regardless of rank,” said Collins, who has a background in forensic science and is an adjunct professor at MSU.
Educating staff, especially those in leadership roles, about making it an imperative to bring sexual assault and harassment complaints to the attention of superiors is an important step in improving culture, Collins said. He noted some organizations are creating Chief Cultural Officer positions to set goals and objectives for what the workplace should look like, but said the key factor is teaching people to use their rank and influence responsibly.
David Shank, president and CEO of Shank Public Relations Counselors in Indianapolis, works in crisis communications and crisis management. He distinguishes between the university’s image, which is what people see of a university, and its reputation, which is what people believe about it.
“The image isn’t the issue. It’s the long-term credibility and reputation of the university that is important,” Shank said.
Shank said a third-party group with a sterling reputation for fighting sexual assault could add credibility to MSU’s efforts, and also suggested the university could establish a foundation or lead an effort to pinpoint the early warning signs it’s missed and let everybody learn from them.
The natural starting point is the Attorney General’s office, which prosecuted Nassar for criminal sexual conduct and sent a letter to MSU demanding it share the results of its internal investigation. MSU declined to do so, saying the investigation had not culminated in a report. The office is still reviewing MSU’s response and determining next steps, according to spokesperson Andrea Bitely, who would not say whether there was currently an investigation underway.
Friday, the board and Simon joined in calls for an Attorney General review of the university’s handling of the Nassar case.
Organizational structure and campus culture are things that have proven easy for university officials to talk about, but hard to make stick.
After Nassar appeared in court to accept a plea deal in November, Lorincz and other victims held a press conference saying they wanted more. They wanted the university to be held accountable.
“As I tried to put the pieces of my life together, I’m trying to understand how I was ever seen by Larry Nassar, since there had been so many reports made to different people at MSU and USA Gymnastics,” Lorincz said. “It makes me angry and upset that Michigan State didn’t do a better job of protecting me. How could they let this happen to me, and so many other young girls and women?”