Opinion: Michigan State, Others Let Down Nassar Victims

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The Virginian — Pilot (Norfolk, VA.)


I thought the stern penalties the NCAA meted out to Penn State's football program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2012 were just.

Penn State officials, allegedly including legendary coach Joe Paterno, looked the other way for years while Sandusky sexually abused young men.

The sanctions brought howls of protest from fans, university officials and some in the media. Yes, Penn State football is a big deal, but there is no greater calling among educators than to protect young people from all kinds of violence, including sexual assault.

The NCAA later dialed back the penalties, which was fine given that Penn State enacted key reforms and three former school officials got jail time.

But it's apparent that years later, officials at Michigan State learned nothing from the Sandusky scandal.

According to a stunning report by the Detroit News, and court testimony this week in Michigan, MSU president Lou Anna Simon was among at least 14 university officials informed over two decades of allegations that the infamous Dr. Larry Nassar was sexually abusing young women.

Yes, for two decades, officials were told about Nassar, a Michigan State employee, and failed to take the allegations seriously enough.

When Nassar finally was publicly outed in 2016, it wasn't done by university officials or the police or federal investigators, but by the Indianapolis Star newspaper. Eight days after that story ran, MSU officials fired him — finally.

Nassar was purported to be an "expert" at providing treatments to reduce pain from injuries. A former USA Gymnastics team doctor, he treated (and sexually abused) four members of the "Fierce Five" — the 2012 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, including Gabby Douglas of Virginia Beach.

According to the Detroit News, his bizarre treatments often involved "osteopathic manipulation near the breasts and vagina." When young women came forward alleging he was groping their breasts and genitals, they were told that it was OK, it's just part of the treatment. You weren't being abused, they said; he was relieving your pain.

One teenager was told in 1997 that she could file a report on Nassar, but was warned "there would be serious consequences" if she did. She didn't.

That was a long time before #metoo became popular.

Whether this was an example of deference to celebrity or a bureaucratic aversion to negative publicity is hard to say, but educational institutions have not only a moral but a legal obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us — our children.

Title IX, a federal law, states that young people have the right to report sexual assaults to colleges and to know that their allegations will be taken seriously, dealt with justly, and that they will not suffer retribution.

Sadly, it appears that Michigan State officials violated that solemn trust again and again.

Interestingly, the media has seemed far less anxious to cover this story than when the Sandusky scandal broke at Penn State. There was hardly a peep on cable news about recent testimony in Michigan. Perhaps that's because Paterno's football program had such a huge profile.

But regardless of where it occurs, sexual abuse is an awful crime. Michigan State should be held to the same standard as were the Nittany Lions.

Judging from the response by NCAA president Mark Emmert to questions about Nassar on Friday, that isn't likely to happen. Emmert called allegations of bribery in college basketball "disgusting," but when asked about Nassar, said he didn't have "enough information" to comment.

Nassar pleaded guilty to sexually abusing nine former athletes in Michigan, where victims testified in court this week about their horrific experiences. More than 100 women abused by Nassar testified, and their stories were both haunting and infuriating. Lives were ruined, and some may have died as a result.

Nassar began to abuse Kyle Stephens in 1998 when she was 6. At age 12, she finally mustered the courage to tell her parents. However, Nassar convinced them she was lying and they forced her to apologize.

Stephens' father committed suicide in 2016 in part, she testified, because of guilt.

Donna Markham testified that her daughter, Chelsea, fell into a mental spiral after Nassar abused her. She quit gymnastics, began using drugs and battled depression. She committed suicide in 2009.

To those of us who've had daughters who were abused, Markham's testimony sounds hauntingly familiar. It takes many young women years to recover. Some never do.

Simon, the MSU president, acknowledged to being informed in 2014 about a sexual assault allegation against a university physician. Turns out, it was Nassar.

Her reaction? She told officials to "play it straight up." She never asked for or read a copy of the report. Because there was no finding against the doctor, she didn't bother to find out any details, even his name.

Wouldn't you think a college president would be more curious about a report detailing accusations that a doctor on your campus was abusing students? Her indifference was inexcusable.

We have the details now, and they are damning.

Amanda Thomashow, a former MSU athlete, told officials in 2014 that Nassar worked on her shoulder and massaged her breast "like your boyfriend would while you were making out with him."

She tried to stop him, but he refused, and then moved his hands underneath her sweatpants. "He began to massage her with three fingers in a circular motion in her vaginal area," according to a Title IX report. It stopped only when she pushed him away and left the room.

Incredibly, the university and its police, in separate investigations, determined that Nassar's treatment was legitimate medical treatment. MSU relied heavily on testimony from university officials with close ties to Nassar.

More than a dozen young women were assaulted after that investigation. All were shamefully let down by university officials who failed miserably to protect them.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, the first to publicly accuse Nassar, says those who knew should be held accountable.

"A monster was stopped last year, after decades of being allowed to prey on women and little girls, and he wasn't stopped by a single person who could have, and should have stopped him at least 20 years ago," Denhollander said. "He was stopped by the victims, who had to fight through being silenced, being threatened, being mocked, by the officials at MSU who they appealed to for help."

"And now the very people who should have been protecting us all along ... have thumbed their nose at any semblance of accountability."

Michigan State's board of trustees, which met Friday morning, announced it will call for a state investigation into how the university handled sexual abuse allegations.

Way too little.

Far too late.

Heads should roll at Michigan State. And for the sake of the women in our lives, I pray that officials across the country are watching, listening and learning.

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January 21, 2018


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