Michigan lawmakers are considering hiring a state Title IX ombudsman and requiring minor patients to be advised of their rights amid criticism of how Michigan State University handled complaints against imprisoned former sports doctor Larry Nassar.
The proposals were among a number outlined Monday by Democrats in the Legislature, where majority Republicans also have introduced or are working on bills after more than 200 women and girls said in court that Nassar had sexually assaulted them with his ungloved hands under the guise of medical treatment.
The ombudsman would work in the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and be "dedicated to listening and believing victims," said Rep. Erika Geiss, a Democrat from Taylor.
She said just one in five female victims of sexual assault ages 18 to 24 report it to law enforcement, some due to fear of retaliation. The ombudsman, she said, would ensure that survivors are given needed help and support — particularly after the Trump administration scrapped Obama-era guidance on investigating campus sexual assaults in favor of instructions that allow universities to require higher standards of evidence.
Under others bills in the works, health facilities would be required to post notices advising minors of their right to have a parent, guardian or other trusted adult present during sensitive health exams, and they would have to begin investigating any sexual assault complaint against a medical professional within 48 hours.
"We need to make it clear today that it's no longer acceptable to write off a victim who has come forth and has summoned the bravery to speak out about their experiences," said Rep. Donna Lasinski, a Democrat of Scio Township near Ann Arbor.
Nassar, who was arrested and charged in 2016, in many cases molested gymnasts and others with their parents in the room. He worked for decades at Michigan State and USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.
A Title IX probe conducted by the university cleared Nassar of sexual assault allegations in 2014. He was advised by the school to avoid being alone with patients while treating their "sensitive areas," but the then-dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine acknowledged that he did not enforce the request. A related campus police investigation of Nassar resulted in no charges being filed by the local prosecutor.
House Democrats on Monday also called for increased spending on rape prevention and service programs for sexual assault victims, saying there is only enough funding for nonprofits to cover 33 of the state's 88 counties. And they renewed their push for a bill, which unanimously cleared the Senate nearly five months ago, to eliminate or lengthen the statute of limitations for bringing charges in certain sexual misconduct cases.
The announcement came after House Republicans last week introduced legislation that would prohibit anyone in a position of authority from preventing someone from reporting a crime and add coaches and athletic trainers to Michigan's list of people who must report suspected child abuse. The mandatory reporter bill expands on Democratic-sponsored legislation that was proposed more than a year ago but has not received a hearing.On Wednesday, the new deadline for Michigan State to respond to legislative inquiries regarding Nassar, a Senate budget subcommittee will receive an overview of universities' requirements under Title IX, a federal law forbidding discrimination based on sex in education.
Sen. Margaret O'Brien, a Portage Republican who is involved in crafting Senate legislation, said she is committed to pursuing any changes that could have made a difference at Michigan State but wants to avoid bills that legislators push "simply to look good."
"Could Michigan State have done something differently if we had a different law or different rules? My conclusion at this point is there were laws and rules when it comes to Title IX that just weren't followed," she said. "While we're taking this opportunity to ensure that children are better protected, the fact remains Larry Nassar broke the law. There were other people who did not report to officials even though they were required to, and the Title IX process was broken at Michigan State."