Michigan State University, which has struggled to emerge from a cloud that has shrouded the school since serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar was sentenced to serve out a life sentence in prison, created waves yet again Wednesday by responding to a gang-rape lawsuit filed this week.
A statement issued by the university denied claims made by a Jane Doe, who says she was assaulted by three “notable” Michigan State basketball players—but that very response may have even broken federal privacy laws, experts told the Detroit Free Press.
Doe claimed in the federal suit that she met three basketball players at a bar in 2015, before one of them drugged her and the student-athletes took turns raping her. When the then-18-year-old freshman went to school counselors about the assault, she claimed they discouraged her from reporting it once they found out the attackers were prominent campus figures. The alleged incident came just weeks after the team made it to the NCAA’s Final Four.
The counselors allegedly “made it clear to [Doe] 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,” the lawsuit claims.
“If you pursue this, you are going to be swimming with some really big fish,” the counselors allegedly said.
In its response, Michigan State officials concede that Doe did visit a counseling center, as was stated in the lawsuit, but that “we have not found any evidence or indication that she was discouraged in any way to make a Title IX complaint or a complaint to the police department.”
“On the contrary, the student said she was then too distraught to discuss her circumstances. The counselor also suggested she visit the Sexual Assault Program unit on campus,” according to a press release.
“The media has taken these allegations about Michigan State’s response to her assault as established fact,” the school claims in its press release, which details dates of appointments and the interactions Doe allegedly had with school officials. “Unfortunately, they are untrue.”
“In October 2015, Jane Doe’s father contacted her academic adviser to discuss concerns over academic performance,” according to the statement. “Through that conversation, the adviser learned about the alleged sexual assault.”
The academic adviser has a legal responsibility to notify law enforcement in such cases, and the school claims the official did notify police but that Doe never responded to those attempts to contact her.
“At no point was MSU Athletics Department or the Basketball Program or Head Basketball Coach aware of or notified of the existence of a Jane Doe’s sexual-assault allegation,” said the statement.
Michigan State Interim President John Engler said the university is “deeply saddened when any student comes to us as the result of a sexual assault.”
According to the Free Press, the statement’s specific list of facts denying the lawsuit likely violated a campus crime-reporting law and a federal student-privacy law.
“If anybody at the institution could figure out who this person is because of the information, it would be a violation,” S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisers for Educational Campuses, told the newspaper. “There seems to be enough there that people could figure out who this student is.”
What’s worse, experts told the Free Press that it sends a “clear message” not to report such assaults.
“I don’t know how anyone on campus would trust the university enough to go to their counseling center or to report an assault. They would just think the university is going to out them,” victim-rights advocate Brenda Tracy said.
“It’s horrible. It goes to exactly why MSU is in trouble in the first place. It shows their culture exactly,” she added.