EAST LANSING, MICH. - When Michigan State University Trustee Mitch Lyons earlier this month revealed football player Auston Robertson as the tipster that started an investigation into sexual assaults allegedly committed by three other players, Lyons likely violated federal privacy laws, experts said.
But even if he didn't he likely will cause future potential tipsters to question the confidentiality surrounding any information they may provide if they come forward, students and experts said.
Since Lyons' comments on June 6, all but one board member — despite plenty of conversations in private — have maintained a public silence on Lyons and the struggles facing not only MSU’s football program, but its athletic department and the entire university when it comes to sexual assaults.
That could change this morning as the board meets in public to set its budget and tuition rates for the coming year. The public will be given time to address the board on issues regarding the university.
This latest turmoil started in early June, shortly after board members wrapped up a closed-door briefing on the football program with head coach Mark Dantonio and athletic director Mark Hollis with a public vote of confidence, three now former players — Joshua King, Donnie Corley and Demetric Vance — were criminally charged in a January incident.
Then Lyons, a former football player, in a radio interview on WBBL-FM 107.3 said that Robertson — a player also facing his own legal problems — told Dantonio about an alleged January sexual assault.
“When Auston Robertson came into his office for a regularly weekly meeting, Coach D asked him the regular questions he typically asks him, and then (Robertson) became a little emotional and didn’t even go into details,” Lyons said in the interview. “He alluded to the fact that something happened. And Coach D had a sense that it involved some sort of sexual allegation, and he immediately said: ‘Don’t say anything more.’ ”
The revelation caused a firestorm, leading Lyons to tweet that he misspoke and confused cases. But Lyons' account naming Robertson matched the account of a law firm hired by MSU to look into the school's handling of the football players' cases, even though the law firm's report didn't identify the person who had tipped off MSU to the alleged incident.
Coming into play in Lyons' comments are two federal laws, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as FERPA.
Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on gender by an educational institution that receives federal funding. It has been expanded to include sexual violence and requires colleges to respond to and remedy hostile educational environments.
FERPA gives parents certain protections with regard to their children's education records, such as report cards and transcripts and contact and family information. The law generally requires schools to get written permission before disclosing a student's personally identifiable information to anyone other than a parent.
Fellow former football player Brian Mosallam, also an MSU trustee, was immediately critical of Lyons, and repeated that criticism in an interview with the Free Press recently, saying he doesn't know if Lyons truly misspoke.
"The trust of the public is at stake. The public has to be convinced that he's being truthful with this statement. I cannot state enough how important it is for Trustee Lyons to clarify this statement. We are at a critical juncture right now where privacy protection, honesty and transparency will define us for years to come. Trustee Lyon's actions have damaged us," Mosallam said.
Several students agreed.
"I think trust is really faltering," said student Marissa Wilson, 20, of Ionia. "There's so many cases, both in the athletic department and outside and then you get these comments. Why would anyone trust that if they came forward and reported something it would be kept confidential and MSU would actually do anything about it?"
MSU student Rachel Erickson, 22, of Grand Rapids, agreed.
"There's a huge problem — they've got to do a lot to make it feel like it's a safer place," she said.
Lyons and the majority of the board did not reply to requests from the Free Press for comment.
Lyons and other board members saw a copy of the Title IX investigation report into the January incident. It's not uncommon, but is rare, for MSU board members to see such reports. MSU administrators provide the report if the board asks for it.
Most of Michigan's other public universities are stingy with who gets to see those reports, which generally include the complete investigation into what happened based on interviews, documents and any other material.
"These confidential reports are not shared with board members or anyone at the university unless there is a a very clearly defined need," University of Michigan spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told the Free Press.
At Oakland University, board members don't routinely see the reports, but could if they request them, spokesman John Young said.
Wayne State University spokesman Matt Lockwood said: "We always provide board members with reports when asked or of interest — we do not typically present Title IX reports as an item for a board meeting, but they are available to any board member who requests."
The actual reports are protected by FERPA. The issue with spreading them to board members or other people at the university is they could spread the protected information, said Daniel Swinton, managing partner of the NCHERM Group and an attorney who advises on Title IX cases.
"That information is supposed to remain confidential. It's uncommon for board members to see those reports because of that. I don't see why they particularly needto see the actual report, especially in a case like this where they hired an outside law firm to conduct a review of the handling of the situation," Swinton said.
Having board members ask for the report simply to satisfy their curiosity could place administrators in a bad position, he said.
"If I'm an administrator and a board member approached me, I'm going to hesitate to not provide it. If they need to be provided, there needs to be a clear process of how the reports are to be handled and training for the board in keeping it confidential," he said.
The issue with the name of the person who reported the incident coming out extends past this case, experts said.
"We are asking people to come forward and get involved," said Brenda Tracy, a sexual assault survivor and advocate. "This creates a dangerous precedent. I don't think it was right. It sends a horrible message.
"There's always a hesitancy in coming forward. This just increases those hurdles."
She said she knows why the board got involved in this case — it involved sports.
"College football is a machine and they don't want it interrupted," she said. "You see the board involved when it's athletics, but not when it's someone else. Obviously when we are talking about football, we are talking about money and we are talking about brand. That's why the board got involved."
As for going forward?
Multiple experts said Lyons, the board and administrators need to take swift steps to assure students they will protect their identity if they report sexual assaults. But it goes beyond that, Tracy said.
"I don't know if Coach Dantonio or anyone in the program has actually sat down with a (sexual assault) survivor and heard their story. If they did that, they are going to understand that what they are doing isn't working."
Another expert in sexual assault suggests radical steps at MSU.
“If they were serious about changing the culture, they would treat the football program just like they treat frats that get into trouble,” said national Title IX and sexual assault expert John Foubert. “They close those frats down until everyone has graduated and then started again from scratch. MSU should fire the football staff and shut down the program for five years. They will never do it, but it’s what they should do.”
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