EAST LANSING, Mich. (Lansing State Journal) — The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Michigan State University's response to sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints involving students on campus.
Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the department, said representatives from its Office for Civil Rights will be at the university Wednesday and Thursday to conduct focus groups and office hours for students — actions related to the office's "investigation of Title IX sexual harassment and violence complaints pending against the university."
The Office for Civil Rights "has asked for an opportunity to meet with individuals on this campus voluntarily and confidentially to discuss climate as well as process" said Paulette Granberry Russell, director of the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives and the university's Title IX coordinator.
When the request came a week and a half ago, "we didn't ask for a delay," she said. "We said, 'Yes.'"
Granberry Russell said she could not talk about individual cases of sexual assault or sexual harassment. Asked if she knew the reason for the federal office's request, she referred back to an official statement from the university.
That statement, from Kent Cassella, MSU's vice president for media communications, said the university is cooperating with the investigation. He also said that MSU "responded fully and appropriately to the incidents under investigation."
"While federal law and privacy concerns prevent MSU from fully discussing specifics, we have a comprehensive record of the actions we took that supports the university's position that we acted appropriately," he said.
Neither the Education Department nor MSU provided further details.
The Office for Civil Rights is also investigating the University of Michigan's handling of the alleged 2009 rape of a female student by football player Brendan Gibbons. Gibbons was arrested, but never charged in the case. He was "permanently separated" from the university in December under a school policy.
There were 20 forcible sexual assaults reported on MSU's campus in 2012, according to the most recent data available from MSU Police. That's up from 15 in 2011 and 14 in 2010.
It's worth noting, however, that sexual assault complaints have risen sharply on campuses across the country since the department issued what's known as a "Dear Colleague" letter in 2011 on handling cases of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
"If a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment," it read, "Title IX requires the school to take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects."
Title IX is the section of the Education Amendments of 1972 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that receive federal funds. In essence, the federal government was reinforcing the idea that freedom from sexual violence or threats was a civil rights issue for women on college campuses.
Just last month, President Barack Obama promised a "coordinated federal response" to sexual assault on college campuses, creating a task force charged with ensuring that institutions comply with the law, providing them with best practices and increasing public awareness of individual schools' track records.
At the time the "Dear Colleague" letter came out, issues involving student behavior were typically addressed through internal student disciplinary boards, Granberry Russell said.
"Student-on-student sexual harassment, including incidents of sexual violence, would have been handled that way at MSU and, I daresay, at most institutions across the country," she said. The letter made clear that "the expectations was, if there are allegations of sexual assault, you will investigate and you will investigate these promptly."
MSU instituted a policy in the spring of 2012 that requires any university employee who receives information about an alleged sexual assault involving another member of the university community to report it both to MSU police and to Granberry Russell's office.
A year ago, the university inaugurated an education initiative called "There's No Excuse for Sexual Assault," complete with buttons and T-shirts and posters with captions such as "We were both wasted" and "She didn't say no, so I didn't stop."
"A lot of universities are catching up, but I think MSU is a leader," said Shari Murgittroyd, who coordinates the sexual assault program at the university's counseling center.
She noted that all incoming freshmen go through a mandatory workshops on sexual assault and relationship violence, that the university has a 24-hour crisis hotline, offers counseling to victims, does in person crisis intervention at Sparrow Hospital's sexual assault nurse examiner unit.
The university could still do more, said Christianna Gluys, an MSU senior who has been a victim of sexual violence and now works as a peer educator with the MSU's Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Prevention Program.
That work has brought her into contact with many victims and survivors of sexual assault, she said. "My impression of the situation is that many of us, or at least I, still don't feel as though the university has taken enough responsibility for the things that happen on the campus."
She called the investigation a good thing. It reminds the university that "people other than just sexual assault survivors and victims are looking into this and saying something about it."