In the recent, highly publicized sexual assault case that stunned the nation, former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar was found guilty of abusing dozens of young female athletes and sentenced to 175 years in prison. This, however, was not the first time Nassar was formally accused of sexual assault. In 2014, a Title IX investigation against Nassar at Michigan State University found “no evidence of misconduct,” allowing Nassar to continue working for the school and subjecting young women to inappropriate sexual behavior disguised as proper medical treatment.
Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools and requires universities to investigate all cases of student sexual assault and harassment. In her Title IX case, former MSU student Amanda Thomashow described Nassar massaging her breasts and vaginal area during medical examinations. The accusation was handled by Kristine Moore, the university’s Title IX coordinator and full time employee. Moore is now MSU’s Assistant General Counsel and is responsible for protecting the school from legal liability.
Moore determined Nassar’s behavior to be “medically appropriate” after she interviewed three medical specialists and an athletic trainer, all four of which were tied personally to Nassar and employed by MSU. After concluding her investigation, Moore gave Thomashow a copy of her report clearing Nassar of all sexual harassment charges. But in a separate internal report recently released by The Detroit News, Moore noted that Nassar’s methods were inflicting “unnecessary trauma” on his patients and putting the university at risk.
Jim Graves, Thomashow’s attorney, said Michigan State’s decision in 2014 to internalize the official report ultimately allowed for the abuse of dozens more women. “They deprived Amanda and all of the survivors from that knowledge they held at that time. Had they disclosed that information, it would have disseminated so people would know that Nassar was preying on girls.”
How Are Title IX Cases Handled by a University?
University employees typically investigate accusations of sexual assault on campus. In cases involving staff members and not just students, it can be difficult for a university to conduct a fully independent investigation. The internal investigation of this Title IX case allowed conflicts of interests to influence the outcome and Nassar’s abuse to continue for two more years.
If a case is particularly sensitive or high-profile, universities will often hire outside law firms specializing in college sexual misconduct to conduct an investigation and publish a public report. Brett Sokolow, a Title IX attorney who runs an independent practice just outside of Philadelphia, said that MSU “should have realized, part way through the Nassar investigation, the enormity of what they were taking on.” Sokolow said the Title IX coordinator should have presented the case to the university president and recommended they seek outside help.
If universities truly have a desire to protect their students, they will provide them with fair and unbiased investigations for all sexual abuse claims. In 2016, after the Nassar accusations became public, a sexual assault scandal drew new negative attention to MSU’s football team. This time the university hired a law firm to “conduct a thorough and independent investigation into football program and staff members’ compliance with university policy.”
Why MSU did not handle Thomashow’s case in 2014 the same way is unclear. Given the nature of the claim, the fact that it involved an employee, Nassar’s position at USA Gymnastics, and a history of similar reports made by MSU students, the case should have been a clear candidate for external investigation. Maybe the university truly felt they conducted a fair investigation, or maybe they were trying to protect a nationally recognized Olympic doctor who was one of the most prominent members of its athletic staff.
Who Decides When a Title IX Case Requires External Investigation?
Title IX does not regulate when a case should require an outside investigation. The decision is left to the school. Conflicts of interest are not always as easy to spot as they are in this case against Nassar. And is likely that there continue to be many more cases like Thomashow’s that are not investigated fairly. After Thomashow’s accusations were dismissed and the case forgotten, it took two years for another victim to publicly come forward.
Thomashow spoke at Nassar’s sentencing hearing in Lansing, Michigan, “My voice didn’t matter four years ago. But maybe this time, at least my voice can be part of a chorus that makes change.” If you or someone you love has been the victim of sexual assault at their campus or university, a Kentucky Title IX lawyer can help. Contact Thomas Law Offices legal team today for a free, no-obligation consultation of your Title IX case.