Bailey Kowalski, the 22-year-old Michigan State University senior who came forward Wednesday as the anonymous plaintiff in a Title IX complaint over the reporting of her alleged rape, addressed the media in an emotional press conference Thursday.
“Today marks the anniversary of my gang rape four years ago,” Kowalski said. “I am coming out today because I am no longer afraid. … I felt the need to speak before I walked [for graduation] in May because if I didn’t, I would be neglecting other victims and leaving them behind.”
Flanked by her family, attorney and counselor at a news conference at the Marriott in East Lansing, Kowalski explained her decision to come forward. She also described the process of reporting being allegedly raped by three members of the men’s basketball team to the university’s counseling services as futile at best, if not outright intimidating.
“I was told that I was ‘swimming with some big fish,’” Kowalski said, paraphrasing the events her lawyers described in the 2018 complaint against the university. “I never forgot that phrase, and the immediate feeling of despair and isolation.”
Kowalski alleges that when she was a freshman at the university in 2015, she was raped. Her lawsuit hinges on the claim that MSU staff “made it clear to Plaintiff that if she chose to notify the police, she faced an uphill battle that would create anxiety and unwanted media attention and publicity as had happened with many other female students who were sexually assaulted by well-known athletes.”
Title IX prohibits universities that receive public funds from discriminating based on sex, including scenarios in which the university is “deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment of which the [funding] recipient has actual knowledge.”
The university’s lawyers argue that Kowalski’s claims do not meet the bar for intentional gender discrimination.
Kowalski and her attorney, Karen Truszkowski, said that they would not name her attackers at this time. Truszkowski said that they have not ruled out the possibility of reporting the incident to the police, but have no immediate plans to do so.
In a controversial public statement after the lawsuit was filed last year, MSU described Kowalski’s allegations as “untrue” and disclosed what many saw as an unnecessary level of personal detail regarding Kowalski’s counseling and communication with the university. Former interim university President John Engler later issued an apology.
Kowalski described that initial letter as a “scare tactic” to discourage not just her, but other survivors of sexual assault by high-profile university athletes or employees, from coming forward with their claims.
“I was victimized all over again,” Kowalski said of the statement’s release.
Kowalski repeatedly said that the university’s sexual assault reporting process was inadequate and unclear, and that MSU fosters a culture in which reporting is discouraged in high-profile cases.
The initial complaint claims that “Plaintiff was told by the [university counseling] staff that they had seen a lot of these cases with ‘guys with big names’ and the best thing to do is to ‘just get yourself better’ implying to the Plaintiff that it would not be in the Plaintiff’s best interest to report the incident to law enforcement.”
MSU spokeswoman Emily Gerkin Guerrant emphasized the university’s attempts to improve their prevention and response efforts in a statement Thursday.
“While MSU cannot comment on the specifics of an ongoing lawsuit, we applaud the courage of all survivors who come forward to tell their story as we continue to listen and learn from them,” Guerrant wrote.
“We acknowledge it has been a challenge in the past for students, faculty, and staff to find resources, so we created the Know More campaign in Fall 2018 to help educate students about the services and programs here to support them. We have put more attention and resources into improved counseling services, created a dedicated office for Prevention, Education and Outreach within the Title IX office, and we are adding a SANE program to help those on campus who have been assaulted.”
Truszkowski said the purpose of the lawsuit is not just to compensate Kowalski for damages she has suffered in the wake of her alleged assault, but to “start pressure on people who need pressure” regarding a problem that is “not isolated to MSU, but it’s facing it right now, and they need to do some deep digging.”
Kowalski will graduate next month after living what she described as a “double life” on campus in the aftermath of her anonymous lawsuit.
The university filed a motion to dismiss the suit that was rejected in November, but a second request is currently pending.