NewsMetro Detroit NewsInvestigations

Actions

Lengthy Title IX investigations at MSU leave survivors 'retraumatized'

In 2019, 10% of cases took 200+ days to conclude
michigan state university.jpeg
Posted at 11:48 PM, Feb 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-10 18:55:24-05

EAST LANSING, Mich. (WXYZ) — Two years ago this month, while she was a junior at Michigan State, Eloise Mitchell says she was raped.

“I just remember feeling anytime I could get my body away from his, I had to gasp for air,” she recalled. “It felt like I was drowning almost.”

Her assailant, she said, was another MSU student that she’d met on a dating app. They met in person just a few hours earlier for dinner before going to her home to watch a movie.

It was there, Mitchell said, that she was assaulted.

“And then the next thing I remember is sitting on my bed, in shock, trying to figure out what happened. And then realizing that I was covered in bruises,” she said. “And that’s when I realized how bad it had been.”

Like many victims of sexual assault, Mitchell didn’t report it at first. Who would believe her, she thought, and how would she prove it? But about eight months later, she says she learned a friend reported being assaulted by the same man. Mitchell decided to come forward.

'As quickly as possible'

She filed a Title IX complaint with Michigan State’s Office of Institutional Equity. It’s how institutions like MSU hold accountable those who’ve committed acts of sexual harassment or violence. If found guilty, students can be expelled; faculty can be terminated.

By now, Mitchell's alleged assailant had graduated, but she felt she owed it to herself to make a record of what happened.

“They told me, look we’re going to try to do this as quickly as possible,” she recalled. “And that they should come down with their ruling in about 60 days.”

But 60 days came and went, and she’d heard nothing. Fall turned to winter, and by spring, Mitchell was still waiting.

“I’m thinking, this has torn my life into pieces and I’m living with it every day and I can’t even get an e-mail back telling me what the next step is going to be,” she said, “or when I can expect this part to be over.”

Liz Abdnour, an attorney who specializes in Title IX cases, says delays like Mitchell’s are all too common and can make a victim’s suffering worse.

“The students I work with regularly tell me, I’m losing sleep over this. I feel like my grades are suffering because I’m stressed about this. I have to go to therapy. I’m on medication,” she said.

Abdnour worked in Michigan State’s Title IX office until 2018 when she was fired, she says, for complaining over how cases were handled. MSU says Abdenour was fired for trying to undermine the head of the department.

Today, she represents students with Title IX claims, including those against MSU.

“Just going through this process can be, for some people, even more traumatizing than the initial incident itself,” Abdnour said, “because there’s so much uncertainty.”

When John Engler took over as MSU's interim president two years ago, he promised faster investigations of Title IX complaints, which, at the time, were averaging 80 days.

"80 days is not only far too long for a response to a complaint, it’s totally unacceptable,” Engler said at the time. “We owe it to all those who have been assaulted and had the bravery to step forward to have a safer MSU be their legacy.”

But instead of going down, the numbers shot up.

“Of the cases that you’re handing now, have any of them been resolved within 80 days?” Jones asked Abdnour, who’s handling about a dozen cases involving MSU.

“No,” she said.

“100 days?” Jones asked.

“No,” Abdnour said.

“200 days?” Jones asked.

“No,” Abdnour said.

“300 days?” Jones asked.

“No,” Abdnour said.

At its worst, in 2018, MSU averaged nearly 190 days to complete a Title IX investigation.

Progress made, but delays persist

The battle over rules handing sexual misconduct cases on college campuses.

We asked repeatedly to interview anyone from Michigan State for this story. The university declined.

But by phone, Rob Kent, a university vice-president,said MSU has made great strides in resolving Title IX cases faster, with the new average falling from 190 days in 2018 to 118 in 2019.

Last month, in an interview with The State News, Kent told the student newspaper: “We’ve been working very, very hard to try to reduce the timelines for our cases and we continue to do so.”

Still, of the more than 1,100 Title IX complaints resolved last year, 110 took at least 200 days to complete—including Eloise Mitchell’s.

“It was 343 days between the initial complaint and the decision,” she said. “And then 17 more days for them to decide the punishment. So in total, it was 360 days.”

By then, Mitchell had already graduated from MSU, so she said it didn’t mean much when she learned that MSU's investigation concluded she had been raped.

“It was very minimizing. It felt like it invalidated what I was going through,” she said. “And it felt like people weren’t really listening to me. Because if you were listening to me, you’d have some sort of urgency. You’d realize how terrible this is.”

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.