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Engler "regrets" releasing "unneccesary detail" about alleged rape victim

Michigan State University sign
Michigan State University

Update, Friday, April 13:

Michigan State University Interim President John Engler told the Board of Trustees Friday he "regrets" Wednesday's response to an alleged rape victim's federal lawsuit. The student claims she was discouraged by school counselors from reporting her assault in 2015.

Engler told the board the initial response "provided an unnecessary amount of detail," which was "perceived by some as violating privacy expectations." While MSU's statement on Wednesday described the woman's allegations as "untrue," Engler now says "we take these allegations very serious and are working towards improvements."

"In our urgency, given the filing of a federal lawsuit against MSU late Monday, to assure the campus community that MSU employees are acting lawfully and following reporting protocols, following appropriate treatment protocols, and are not discouraging reporting, we regret that we provided an unnecessary amount of detail to convey that point, which has been perceived by some as violating privacy expectations. The staff in the MSU Counseling Center and the Sexual Assault Program are highly professional and work hard every day to provide their clients with outstanding care and support. While we remain firm in our position that appropriate protocols for treatment and reporting were followed, there is always room to improve client experiences and treatment protocols. We also want the campus community to know that we take these allegations very seriously and are working towards improvements. Sexual violence in all forms is abhorrent and inconsistent with our institutional values. MSU is committed to responding to all reported incidents and continuing to examine underlying climate issues to promote a culture of safety and respect at MSU."

Original post, Thursday, April 12:

Michigan State University is engaging in exactly the type of retaliation that an alleged rape victim feared when she initially decided not to report a gang rape by three MSU basketball players in 2015, the woman’s attorney said Thursday.

"She didn't move forward with her [rape] complaint because she was terrified of retaliation,” says Karen Truszkowski, who represents a female MSU student suing the school for allegedly discouraging her from reporting her assault. “Now look what's happened."

On Wednesday night, Michigan State University reversed their previous decision to not comment on pending litigation and released a detailed statement from Interim President John Engler’s office, calling the woman’s claims “untrue.”

That statement also reveals new details about the female student that weren’t in her original suit, including that she allegedly told counselors “she was too distraught to discuss her circumstances,” which therapy services she went on to use on campus, and that her father later called her academic advisor to “discuss concerns over academic performance.”  

Deb Gordon, a Michigan civil rights attorney who’s represented several clients in campus sexual assault suits, says MSU was likely responding to the negative coverage it received the last few days over the woman’s lawsuit.

“As a university, your reaction is properly to want to clear it up, so that your student body understands, no, this is not really the way it all went down, from what we’ve been able to figure out…I mean, how do you not do that if you’re a university, and you’re facing a lawsuit that says you just completely went the wrong way and harmed somebody, and then the media picks it up and runs with it?” Gordon asks.

“It’s a state university, and you want to assure the community and the taxpayers and your students, you know, no, this is not the way it occurred.”

Michigan State University is already facing intensive scrutiny over its mishandling of sexual assault cases, including the Larry Nassar case. In that atmosphere, Gordon says, the school can’t afford to wait to respond to these allegations in a legal filing of its own.

“I would not wait and hope that they read my answer to the complaint 28 days later, because that’s what’s going to happen,” Gordon says. “They’re going to take, you know, a good 28 days or more to answer this complaint in court. It will be filed electronically. The only way anybody can get it, unless a newspaper publishes it, is if they have access to the court’s e-filing system. So it’s just not that simple.”

Emily Guerrant, a spokeswoman for the university and interim president John Engler, says they weren’t going after the alleged victim personally.

“Our statement by no means was intended to be a retaliation against Jane Doe or any potential victim of sexual assault,” Guerrant said in an email Thursday. “We encourage anyone who feels they have been victimized to step forward and seek out support and resources.

“The intent of the statement was to share MSU’s facts in this situation as we felt those items weren’t present in the earlier media coverage.”

The original lawsuit

On Monday, Doe filed a lawsuit claiming she was raped as a freshman by three MSU basketball players in April 2015. When she went to report the complaint to the MSU Counseling Center, staff there told her they’d seen a lot of these cases with “guys with big names” and that it was easier to “just get better yourself” rather than report the rape to police, the suit claims.

“If you pursue this, you are going to be swimming with some really big fish,” the student was told, according to her suit. Comments were made by counseling staff that “we have had many other students in the same situation who have reported, and it has been very traumatic for them,” the lawsuit says.

“Plaintiff was so discouraged…she became frightened to the point that she decided she could not report the rape(s) to law enforcement,” the lawsuit says. “In October 2015, Plaintiff became so traumatized, depressed and withdrawn to the point that she was admitted to the Sparrow Hospital outpatient psychiatric day program for intensive psychiatric treatment.”

This story was updated April 12th at 4:15 pm to include new comments from Michigan State University and others. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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