WASHINGTON — Michigan lawmakers have introduced sexual assault legislation that they hope will help prevent situations like the Dr. Larry Nassar scandal that rocked Michigan State University.
A bipartisan coalition in the House and Senate — led by U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) — announced a new bill Tuesday to require university leaders to certify that they have reviewed any reports of sexual abuses perpetrated by university employees.
“It ensures that no university president, no university leader can ever say I didn’t know, I wasn’t told, I couldn’t have helped, I wasn’t in a position to lead,” Slotkin told the Michigan Advance Tuesday in an interview. “It just removes that daylight between the survivors and the leadership at the universities, which is obviously one of the many problems that we had at MSU.”
Slotkin has asked to meet with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about issues regarding sexual assault. She told the Advance on Tuesday that they have a meeting scheduled for May 9.
The freshman lawmaker said she feels a special connection to the bill because her 8th District includes East Lansing and Michigan State University.
“I think I just have a special responsibility to ensure that the processes that failed at MSU in the Larry Nassar case do not repeat themselves and that we learn the lessons from that whole terrible incident or series of incidents — years of incidents,” she told the Advance.
The measure has bipartisan support in both chambers. Peters introduced a Senate version of the bill in March, along with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). U.S. Reps. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden) are co-sponsors of the House version.
“Ultimately, we need to make sure that there is no excuse used by the top officials at the university, especially the excuse that, ‘I didn’t know,’” Peters said Tuesday at a news conference on Capitol Hill.
“In Michigan, unfortunately, there is still a serious trust deficit between MSU and the survivors,” Peters said. “I’m encouraged that the board of trustees fired acting President [John] Engler earlier this year as they embark on a search for a new president.
“It was clear that Mr. Engler’s lack of empathy toward the survivors has made them feel disrespected and dismissed. With him gone, the healing process can move forward and begin, which should have happened of course, a long, long time ago.”
Upton said “the more sunlight we can expose” on sexual assault, “the better it is and the faster it will stop. That’s what this bill will do.”
Slotkin said she’s “thrilled” to have bipartisan support for the measure.
“I don’t think this should be a political issue; it’s about protecting our students and I really laud my colleagues for joining on. The survivor advocates specifically ask that we keep this bipartisan, that this topic not become politicized, so that’s what we’re all trying to do,” she said.
Slotkin, who unseated Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop last fall, said she’s spent a lot of time during her first few months on the job meeting with survivor advocates.
She said she previewed her legislation during recent meetings with Michigan State’s interim President Satish Udpa and with Oakland University President Ora Pescovitz and sought their feedback on that, as well as on campus sexual assault issues in general.
“It’s been a real bringing of the community together around improving Title IX,” Slotkin said.
This bill, she added, is “just the beginning” of her work on the issue. She’s also putting pressure on DeVos, a Michigan native, to rethink her plans to overhaul how schools handle sexual assault allegations under Title IX, a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs.
Slotkin and other Democrats warn that the Trump administration’s overhaul will inappropriately limit schools’ liability, discourage students from reporting incidents and tip the scales toward accused perpetrators.
The planned changes from the U.S. Education Department, Slotkin said, “literally ignore the lessons of the Larry Nassar scandal and take us in the wrong direction.”
DeVos has agreed to meet with Slotkin in her congressional office on May 9, Slotkin said.
“I’m really looking forward to talking to her [DeVos] Michigander-to-Michigander about the issue of sexual assault and the importance of talking to victims,” she said. “I just want to understand if she’s ever had the experience of speaking with survivors, with advocates, with people who have actually experienced Title IX from the survivor end.
“Because I think it must be impossible to move forward with some of these changes if she’s actually heard from people who have lived the experience, and I think stories matter and she needs to hear their stories.”