Sex abuse policy under scrutiny at Ohio colleges

Ohio’s colleges are joining together to address sexual misconduct on campus as part of a statewide initiative to keep one of them from becoming the next Michigan State University, which agreed to settle with the survivors of Larry Nassar’s abuse last week for $500 million.

Nassar, who was accused of sexually abusing more than 332 people, has already been sentenced to 60 years in prison on federal child pornography charges and another 40 to 175 years for state charges that he abused women while working at Michigan State. The half-a-billion dollar settlement is thought to be the biggest in history involving a U.S. college.

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Along with the #MeToo movement, Nassar’s widespread abuse of women at MSU has further widened the national spotlight on sexual misconduct and its glare is already expanding onto Ohio.

“I hope that our experiences at MSU have opened up the world’s eyes to the suffering that survivors of sexual assault deal with every day,” Amanda Thomashow, who complained to university officials in 2014 about Nassar’s conduct, testified during his sentencing. “And I hope that we can change our attitude toward victims. And I hope that our culture shifts from enabling predators to empowering survivors.”

The state department of higher education is in the midst of a review of campus policies on sexual abuse and harassment after Gov. John Kasich specifically ordered one. Local colleges said they want to learn from Michigan State’s troubles and administrators said they will be improving their policies so that they are fine-tuned by the time classes begin again in the fall.

“We want to learn from other people’s mistakes (and ask) ‘are there gaps that we need to revisit?’” said Amy Zavadil, University of Dayton Title IX coordinator and equity compliance officer. “I think the changing landscape makes it even more important to do that.”

‘I saw my life right there’

No cases have been made public at area colleges since the Nassar scandal broke. But, in light of the MSU case, Ohio State University in April announced an investigation into allegations against former wrestling team doctor Richard Strauss. Strauss, who worked at OSU from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, died in 2005.

Since the probe was first launched, the university has expanded it to include reports from male student athletes involved in football, cheerleading, gymnastics, fencing, hockey and swimming. The Ohio Attorney General’s Office has appointed the law firm Porter,Wright, Morris & Arthur to investigate the allegations.

Michael DiSabato, a former Ohio State wrestler from 1986 to 1991, said he was sexually abused by Strauss. DiSabato said it did not fully hit him that he had been abused until he saw the Nassar case unfold.

“When I saw those very, very strong young ladies get up and talk about what I consider some of the most heinous acts…I saw my life right there,” DiSabato said. “It didn’t make me come forward it required me to come forward.”

DiSabato now works as an advocate for college athletes through his own organization called The Profectus Group.

DiSabato has a history of business disagreements with Ohio State over retail licensing dating back to 2003, he said. The disagreements, DiSabato said, have nothing to do with why he came forward with allegations though and he points to scholarships at OSU that he’s helped fund as proof of his love for the school.

Ohio State spokesman Chris Davey said school officials could not comment on allegations until the independent investigation was complete.

To date, Ohio State’s third-party investigation is the most sweeping action any Ohio college has taken in light of the Nassar scandal. But, the review Kasich requested has the potential to reshape methods used to prevent and handle misconduct allegations on Ohio’s campuses.

“When we focus on prevention and truly change the culture, we avoid becoming a Michigan State or whatever you want to put in that box,” said Kerry Soller, manager of the state’s project for campus safety and sexual violence prevention.

‘A real opportunity’

After the Nassar scandal unfolded, the Ohio Department of Higher Education set out to survey every Ohio college with athletics programs.

The survey was the department’s response to Kasich’s February request that some form of review be conducted. Since then, the state obtained information from every Ohio school, ODHE chancellor John Carey told college presidents in a letter obtained by this news organization.

“Each campus indicated it is continuing to make progress in its efforts to make sure that the student athletes and staff members are informed of campus prevention and response efforts to end sexual violence,” Carey said. “Several of the responses highlighted promising efforts campuses are making to connect to student athletes.”

The survey questions focused on how colleges handle sexual allegations in athletics programs, how often training is required for coaches, how students are informed of their rights and the relationship between athletics administrators and Title IX coordinators.

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UD offered to share a written copy of the school’s survey response, which was signed by president Eric Spina, with this news organization.

In the response, administrators described their reporting system for allegations which go through UD’s Equity Compliance Office. The university also detailed its sexual assault and harassment awareness initiatives that all students are exposed to through orientation and other campus programs and events.

Each measure at UD is in place to “ensure that all parts of its campus are safe from sexual misconduct,” and to make sure it’s clear how misconduct should be reported, Spina said in the response.

Responses from the survey are being compiled by Carey’s office for future use, the chancellor wrote in his letter. Though there are no set plans yet for the initiative’s future, it represents “a real opportunity” for change, Soller said.

‘Changing landscape’

Despite the state’s effort, area colleges are not waiting for direction to better their policies and practices.

UD’s Zavadil has encouraged students, faculty and staff to approach someone about an issue even if they are unsure that it rises to the level of sexual misconduct or harassment.

“Don’t wait until you’re sure it’s a problem,” Zavadil said. “When you’re in doubt, call (us) and consult.”

Miami University began requiring employees to complete training this past year that informs faculty and staff of their “duty to report” misconduct, discrimination and harassment, said spokeswoman Claire Wagner. Title IX coordinators at Miami and Wright State University were unavailable to comment for this story.

Wittenberg University is always looking for ways to improve its policies, said Casey Gill, Wittenberg dean of students and Title IX Coordinator. Like Miami, Wittenberg employees are required to complete training about their “obligation to report misconduct.”

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“Continuous training and comprehensive education of all Wittenberg employees and students (is) important to ensuring an inclusive, safe, and mission-focused community,” Gill said.

Ohio State’s independent investigation may be the most dramatic action taken at an Ohio college so far, but that kind of probe does not work for every school, said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for campus safety in Washington, D.C.

When college administrators decide how to investigate misconduct, they typically consider the scope of the accusations and what resources their schools have available. That’s because there is no “one size fits all” approach to investigations, Kiss and other experts said.

And while investigations and other recent responses to the Nassar scandal may signal a positive change is afoot, prevention is still widely seen as the key. Colleges must not let their reactions to Nassar detract from improving prevention, Kiss said, because heading off misconduct in the first place is always best.

“The moral is no one and no industry is immune to this,” Kiss said. “The more it stays in the headlines the more we’re going to continue to talk about it, which is a good thing.”

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Michigan State settlement

• Total settlement is $500 million

• $425 million to be paid to 332 survivors

• $75 million to be held in case more survivors come forward

• Details still needs to be finalized by all parties

• No non-disclosure agreements will be part of the settlement

Source: MSU press release.

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