LANSING, Mich. — Michigan lawmakers took an initial step Wednesday to require that the governing board of each state university receive written notice of any instance of possible campus sexual misconduct, which backers said would ensure that college leaders don't ignore such allegations in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal at Michigan State.
The budget bill — which was approved unanimously by a state Senate panel — also would provide a 1 percent boost in aid for the state's 15 public universities to spend only on sexual assault prevention, student mental health and campus safety programs. That would be in addition to a regular 2 percent funding increase.
State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., a Democrat from East Lansing, said one reason victims have not come forward is because of fears that their allegations would not be taken seriously.
"If they know that the leadership of the university is going to get knowledge of each of these cases, they'll know that somebody should be taking it seriously," he said. "It's a strong statement from the Legislature that we want these cases to be looked at and taken seriously."
Trustees at Michigan State, where Nassar worked, have said they were unaware of various allegations against him until he was fired in 2016.
"They cannot plead willful ignorance anymore," Hertel said. "They will have actual information that these cases were filed and they won't be able to say they didn't know."
Each university would have to make sure that its governing board gets written notice of every report made to the school's Title IX coordinator regarding any instance of possible sexual misconduct occurring on the campus or "in connection with any program, activity, or event sponsored in whole or in part by the university."
Voters throughout the state elect the board members at three state universities, including Michigan State — where the board members have come under heavy criticism over the Nassar scandal and where the president resigned. Trustees are appointed by the governor at 12 other schools. University presidents typically are non-voting members of governing boards.
State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, a Lawton Republican and chairwoman of the Senate's higher education budget subcommittee, said senators discussed possibly cutting Michigan State's funding due to its handling of Nassar, but that would end up "hurting students and raising tuition."
The legislation also would require universities to prominently display a link to campus safety information from the home pages of their websites.
Olympic gymnasts are among more than 250 girls and woman who say the now-imprisoned former sports doctor sexually abused them under the guise of medical treatment, including when he worked for Michigan State and USA Gymnastics. Nassar was sentenced this year to 40 to 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to molesting nine victims in the Lansing area.
Michigan State also is dealing with sexual assault cases unrelated to Nassar.
A woman who attends Michigan State filed a lawsuit against the school this week alleging three former men's basketball players raped her at an off-campus apartment in 2015 and she was discouraged from reporting what happened. Last week, three ex-football players pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the alleged 2017 sexual assault of a woman in an apartment bathroom.
And in 2015, the school agreed to changes after a U.S. Department of Education investigation found the university had violated Title IX — which prohibits sex discrimination — by failing to promptly probe complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence. The agency is now looking into "systemic issues" with how the school handled reports against Nassar.
Separately, the leaders of two state House committees last week issued findings that included criticism of Michigan State's 2014 Title IX investigation of a complaint filed by a Nassar patient, who had alleged inappropriate touching. The lawmakers said the school erroneously concluded Nassar committed no sexual harassment and "almost entirely based this conclusion on the flawed testimony of biased medical experts."
House members introduced more bills Wednesday to target those who prevent accusers from reporting sexual misconduct to law enforcement, to enhance training for mandatory reporters and to make other changes such as placing limits on medical treatments that involve penetrating minors.
MSU, in a response to the panels' inquiries dated March 29, said the potential for bias or conflict of interest was taken into account, and the three doctors who were consulted said Nassar's conduct in that instance was a recognized osteopathic treatment.