Serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar is serving a de facto life sentence in prison, but his victims are still fighting for justice. The female gymnasts who accused and brought down Nassar, a former sports doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, want to hold accountable the institutions that propped up their abuser.
The U.S. Department of Education last week fined Michigan State University $4.5 million for mishandling reports about Nassar’s behavior. Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, whose initial accusations sparked Nassar’s dramatic public reckoning, called the Education Department’s findings “another report highlighting the failures at MSU that [led] to Larry abusing hundreds of kids.”
The unprecedented fine eclipses the department’s previous record, a $2.4 million penalty levied against Penn State University three years ago for its handling of sexual misconduct by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. But advocates for Nassar’s victims called the fine pocket change compared to Michigan State’s annual budget of more than $1.5 billion.
“Just this week, the government fined YouTube $170 million for simply monitoring kids illegally,” said John Manly, an attorney who has represented dozens of Nassar’s victims. “Here we have a university that engaged in the systemic protection of a pedophile.”
Two divisions of the Department of Education—the Office of Federal Student Aid and the Office for Civil Rights—investigated Michigan State. The student aid office found the school failed to document evidence of numerous incidents involving Nassar. This indicated a “lack of institutional control” over his decades of predatory and abusive behavior, the office’s report said.
The second investigation revealed Title IX violations, including the university’s failure on repeated occasions to respond to reports of sexual misconduct by Nassar, as well as William Strampel, the disgraced former dean of the Michigan State College of Osteopathic Medicine and Nassar’s boss.
Michigan State officials quickly agreed to make policy changes in response to the federal investigations. The university also said it would provide help for victims, including counseling, tuition reimbursements, and even grade changes. The school wired the entire $4.5 million to the federal government on Friday and committed to pursuing possible sanctions against current and former employees who failed to act after receiving reports of Nassar’s or Strampel’s sexual behavior.
Many Michigan legislators applauded the fine but complained Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s proposed revisions to Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in education based on sex, would only weaken future protections for victims of campus sexual assault. The proposed Title IX changes would narrow the definition of sexual harassment and require a higher burden of proof. The department received tens of thousands of public comments on the policy earlier this year and is reviewing them individually.
Michigan State negotiated a separate $500 million settlement with more than 300 women and girls preyed upon by Nassar. The school has undergone several major leadership changes in the wake of the scandal, including a short-lived presidency by former Michigan Gov. John Engler that ended after he made comments that offended many of Nassar’s victims. Current President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. took the helm barely six weeks ago. He pledged immediate action and thorough reform in response to the fine. “In my effort to build a safe and caring campus, we must have a culture of accountability,” Stanley told The New York Times.
Nassar’s victims, including Denhollander, want Stanley to revive plans for an independent investigation, with full access to internal documents, moderated by a special master. Denhollander and others say the investigation would provide total accountability for the Nassar cover-up. Michigan State trustees retained an outside law firm in June to conduct the probe but dropped the plan later in the summer.
“If this board will not act, it is time for you President Stanley to let us all know where you stand,” Denhollander and two other former gymnasts, Sterling Riethman and Sarah Klein, said in a statement. “Hopefully it’s with the moral conviction to finally learn the truth about the culture that and individuals who allowed Larry Nassar’s sexual misconduct to go unabated for decades on MSU’s campus.”