It was a call nothing prepares you for — your daughter, a Michigan State University student, thousands of miles from home, telling you she has been raped.
And when it happened just after Labor Day in 2014, the mom left her home in California and flew across the country, suddenly showing up in front of her daughter's dorm room.
"There was a knock on the door, and I was like, 'I'm getting up.' Then there was another knock and I went to the door and my mom was standing there almost crying. She said, 'I'm here until you tell me to leave.'
"I'm pretty independent and don't like to ask for help but it was really nice to see her standing there," the student, who graduated last fall from MSU, told the Free Press. The Free Press does not publish the names of sexual assault victims unless they request their names be included.
It was clear to the mom her daughter hadn't been sleeping, so, at some point, the pair just laid on the bed in the hotel and the mom tried to comfort her daughter.
The alleged assault had occurred at a private Michigan college, not at MSU, but investigating authorities refused to pursue charges, she said, because all they had to go on was the words of both parties.
The MSU student and her mom went looking for help.
They said they called MSU's rape hotline, but were told it was too busy to help. They called MSU's counseling center, only to be told the next available appointment was months away.
"We got no help. We got no support," the mom said. "My hope was when I called them they would say, 'here's someone to talk to. Here's some support groups. Here's someone to check in on my daughter every day.' I wanted them to say that someone cared."
Michigan State does not comment on specific situations involving students.
Three and a half years later, all of that came flooding back to their minds as they listened to victim after victim stand in a courtroom and talk about how MSU failed them in the Larry Nassar case. It was a stark reminder of how MSU failed them as well, they said.
As the nation focuses on allegations of a cover-up in the Nassar case, and state officials and media — including the Free Press — continue to examine reports of sexual assaults involving athletes, the California student and scores of others like her don't want their stories forgotten.
MSU's problems with handling sexual assaults — covering up accusations; not responding to cries for help; attacking survivors' credibility — aren't just limited to one department. They are the systematic failings of a university, many say.
"It takes a village" to create a campus culture where Nassar's crimes, accusations against football players and cries for help from students are ignored and covered up, said Brenda Tracy, herself a survivor of a gang rape by Oregon State University football players and now a nationwide advocate and speaker on sexual assault issues. "It's never just in a vacuum."
The week that was
The past two weeks likely will go down as the worst in Michigan State history. More than 150 victims stood in a Lansing court blasting MSU and other organizations for ignoring their cries for help for decades as Nassar repeatedly sexually assaulted them.
"You are merely a symptom of the sickness, which plagues the very core of Michigan State University," Nassar survivor Moran McCaul said.
The public outcry after the testimony cost Lou Anna Simon her job after 12 years as president. She resigned Wednesday evening.
Two days later, athletic director Mark Hollis retired suddenly, hours before an ESPN report detailed numerous sexual assault allegations in the university's two marquee sports programs.
Students marched Friday night in protest of the way the university handles sexual assaults, as the school's football and basketball coaches made public statements denying any wrongdoing on their part.
Organizer and MSU junior Mackenzie Mrla said the rally was a chance for students to use the recent spotlight on MSU to speak out.
"We’re not going to choose what our university did and be silent," Mrla said. "We’re going to choose to use our words for change. We need change."
But MSU's issues stretch past athletics and encompass the entire university.
A culture of silence
It was in a hotel conference room, not a courtroom, but the stories coming from several female MSU students eerily foreshadowed what a different group of MSU students would say nearly three years later in a Lansing court.
In November 2014, four women who had filed sexual assault complaints against male students detailed how MSU routinely delayed investigations past its own rules for how long investigations should take. They also alleged the delays in investigations and appeals allowed the male students involved to routinely harass the female students who had filed the complaints. The four women sued MSU in federal court.
"The utter lack of immediate and adequate response by MSU officials to these and other complaints of sexual violence experienced by its students is reprehensible,” said Alex Zalkin, attorney for the students, in that news conference. “Rather than stepping up and doing the right thing morally and under the law, MSU deliberately shirked its legal responsibilities, which has served to injure and re-victimize these, and probably many other student-victims of campus sexual assault.”
MSU has vigorously fought the suit, claiming its administrators had immunity from suits. A federal judge denied that claim.
MSU also filed a motion to dismiss all the Title IX claims against it in the case. Title IX is a federal law that, among other things, requires universities to investigate all claims of sexual assault or harassment. A federal judge denied that claim.
MSU has appealed those rulings to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. On Friday, a federal judge put the original suit on hold until the appeals court rules.
The Free Press and other media organizations have repeatedly detailed problems with MSU's sexual assault administrative investigations.
In late 2015 and early 2016, a student waited 117 days for a ruling on her allegation about being sexually assaulted by a MSU graduate instructor.
Former gymnast Lindsey Lemke and governor candidate Gretchen Whitmer speak during the 'March for Survivors and Change at MSU' event on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018.
That's because at MSU — like other universities in the state — investigative offices are understaffed. There are no standards for who can investigate.
In Michigan, the responsibility for trying to figure out whether the allegations are true falls on fewer than 50 investigators spread out across the state's 15 public universities.
There is also no statewide standard on whether universities will automatically notify police when administrative units are notified of sexual assaults. The state can't force standards on the universities, including MSU, because the universities claim they have constitutional autonomy from the Legislature.
But it's not just media that have pointed out problems. In 2015, the federal government lowered the boom on the school's practices.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) said the university did not act promptly to handle two reports of sexual assault. They also found the university did not have proper procedures and policies in place to handle sexual assault reports.
The OCR report also said there were a lack of counselors and other support people on campus. MSU said it was beefing up those units.
The OCR also found, in interviews with students, that many didn’t know who to report sexual assaults to. The OCR also knocked the university’s documentation of internal grievance files and found confusion among the athletic department staff about who should report sexual assault claims to the university’s investigation office.
"Taking into account all of the evidence gathered during the investigation, OCR determined that a sexually hostile environment existed for and affected numerous students and staff on campus," the report found. The OCR looked at three years of investigations. "The University's failure to address complaints of sexual harassment, including sexual violence, in a prompt and equitable manner caused and may have contributed to a continuation of this sexually hostile environment."
It has recently been revealed that MSU failed to give the OCR all of the files about Nassar during that investigation.
In response, Simon said MSU was changing its practices and had started doing so before the OCR got involved.
"This is a societal issue that needs a societal conversation," she said when the OCR issued its report. "We have to be willing to talk through tough issues, and we must, above all, strive for fairness in a situation that may have begun as patently unfair for a survivor. Time also is an issue. We have to work through how we take the time to do thorough investigations yet maintain urgency and compassion by completing them as quickly as possible.
"When viewed through that lens, I don’t see the OCR findings as an end of a process. I see them as yet more input we can use to help us move forward. We have been constantly making improvements on this serious and pervasive issue, using various sources of information and feedback to be better tomorrow than we are today."
Lindsey Lemke, left, and her mother Christy Lemke-Akeo take a look at the Rock during the 'March for Survivors and Change at MSU' event on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, on the MSU campus in East Lansing. Nick King/Lansing State Journal
Nicole Mitchell was a sophomore when the OCR issued its report in 2015. She remembers the report. She said she wasn't sexually assaulted while a student but had several friends who were.
"That's such a joke," Mitchell, now 25 and an accountant living in Dallas, told the Free Press. "Nothing changed. Everyone on campus knew you couldn't report anything to them because nothing would be done. They didn't care about victims. They just wanted to protect their image. It's all lip service. It sounds good, but that's all. How many Nassar victims were assaulted after that? How many students at MSU have been raped since that?"
Since that OCR report, MSU has fought in court to stop the release of public records about its handling of sexual assault claims against athletes. It even took the unusual step of suing ESPN in order to try to have a judge force the media organization to withdraw its public records request.
"I'm ashamed of my school," said alumni Mark Timmons, 43, of Novi. "I love it, but this is embarrassing and maddening. If they are doing what they say they are doing, then just turn over the records you are required to turn over and don't fight everything constantly."
Crisis is not over
The pain isn't over for MSU.
Nassar faces sentencing in Eaton County this week on sexual abuse charges. A president must be hired. Questions continue to swirl around MSU's football and basketball programs relating to players and sexual misconduct allegations.
An athletic director is needed.
Michigan's governor continues to investigate whether he has the power to remove the Board of Trustees.
There are dozens of Nassar victims who have filed lawsuits against MSU.
On Saturday, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced a special investigation into MSU. There have been calls for state Legislature and congressional inquiries. And the federal OCR has said it will reopen an investigation.
But there's more than that that needs to change, said Tracy, the Oregon rape survivor. The school's whole culture needs to change.
"To start, they should stop fighting the lawsuits," Tracy said. "I think there are a lot of people there that need to go. But more importantly, they need to stop trying to protect the brand — especially the money makers — and focus on the (survivors). They have to bring them to the table and really listen to them."
That's a key characteristic necessary of whomever is hired as the next president, student body president Lorenzo Santavicca told the Free Press.
"We need someone who will listen to, and empathize with, the students," he said.
It goes beyond that, Tracy said.
"They need a president who does that and who has the power to make changes and isn't a figurehead," she said. "Lots of places have a board member or a donor who is really pulling the strings. (MSU) needs to make sure their next president is allowed to make changes.
"They have to stop making decisions by thinking about the impact on the brand. They have to think about the impact on students."
On Friday, board members, in their first public meeting since Simon stepped down, repeatedly said they will change.
"I am so truly sorry. We failed you," said Trustee Brian Mosallam to Nassar victims. He added he will hold a town hall meeting to hear from students. We have been "tone-deaf, emotionless, and lacking empathy."
Trustee Melanie Foster echoed that.
"The university has been unresponsive to your cries. History is what it is, and now we must move forward and attempt to heal your wounds with our actions and our words," Foster said.
That will be seen by students in concrete changes in how the university spends its money.
"With the amount of money I paid in tuition and random-ass fees, there's got to be more space and more money available for counseling and supporting students," the California student who was raped in 2014 said.
She graduated last May after taking some time off to get private counseling and work toward healing.
"I wanted to be able to pick up the phone and say here are the actions you need to take, not to be told there was nothing. I wanted someone to help me through it. I needed someone to hold my hand, sometimes physically, sometimes mentally. I didn't get it."
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