By Arielle Hines
One hundred students, activists and professors braved 10-degree temperatures in late February to attend a panel discussion at the Bovee University Center about sexual assaults.
But one department was notably missing.
The Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Diversity, the department responsible for investigating sexual misconduct complaints at Central Michigan University, was invited to participate in the panel by the event’s organizers but did not send a representative — even though the office is located in the same hallway where the panel was held.
Less than a month later, the same office unveiled a new, university-wide sexual misconduct policy. In the statement announcing the new policy, Civil Rights Director Kathy Lasher was quoted saying, “This new policy was developed by representatives from across campus.” The statement was accompanied by a university-produced video with students using the slogan, “it’s on us” on to curb sexual misconduct.
The new sexual misconduct policy defines what conduct is prohibited, describes the rights of victims and mandates that all employees of CMU are required to report any information of a possible incident.
Failing to directly address the students at the panel was part of a pattern of the university refusing to discuss the issue of sexual assault other than in tightly controlled forums, ignoring student journalists’ requests for comment, and rejecting Freedom of Information Act requests for public information relating to sexual assault and misconduct.
For the past three months, CMU Insider has sent four Freedom of Information Act requests asking the university for the number of sexual assault complaints CMU has received in the past three years and the outcomes of those complaints. All of them have been denied. (For more on Michigan’s FOIA law, click here.)
There has been a growing call for universities to be transparent about sexual assault nationwide. The White House, for instance, created a task force to examine the issue that concluding universities must be more accountable to sexual assault victims. The task force’s first recommendation includes a call for universities to “know the extent” of any sexual assault problem.
“Colleges and universities need to face the facts about sexual assault,” Vice President Joe Biden said in a press conference. “No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist. We need to give victims the support they need — like a confidential place to go — and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Instead of releasing the information, the General Counsel’s office, the legal department of CMU, stated on numerous occasions that the university does not keep annual reports, reviews or records of the number of sexual assault complaints, other than federally mandated police reporting.
Adam Goldstein, legal advocate from the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to college journalists, characterized CMU’s denials as “passive aggressive sniveling over technicalities.”
“It certainly looks like CMU is working very hard to avoid disclosing information,” Goldstein said in an email. “A human adult of nearly average intelligence ought to be able to figure out to be able how to respond to (Insider’s) requests without running into the roadblocks they’re citing.”
Goldstein said CMU could not possibly create an effective sexual assault policy without knowing the number of sexual assault complaints.
“When you have a complex problem like sex crimes on campus, you can’t reliably make efforts to solve them until you quantify them, because without a metric to measure against, you have no idea whether your efforts are working,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein said if CMU does not keep records of the number of complaints, it shows they have little interest in dealing with sexual assault.
“Is CMU genuinely saying that it has so little interest in preventing sexual assault that it can’t even be bothered trying to count them,” Goldstein said. “Even if it truly thinks it doesn’t have to do it at this level of granularity?”
When CMU announced its new sexual assault policy on March 16, President George Ross said the university was committed to dealing with sexual misconduct.
“CMU is reaffirming its commitment to this issue with a revised policy that defines sexual misconduct and provides information about resources and procedures for reporting and addressing assault,” Ross said in an email to students.
However, CMU has continuously denied releasing information that would give insight into the scope of sexual assaults on campus.
On January 26, Insider called the CMU’s Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity asking for the number of complaints they received in a year. The woman who answered the phone told Insider that the office kept the information, but they were not sure if they could release it.
The woman hung up before Insider could respond.
“All (CMU) would have to do is make a fully redacted copy of the first page of any form filled out when a complaint is made, or follow-up e-mail, or anything else,” Goldstein said. “Then, the number of pages they return to you is the number of complaints they recorded.”
In addition to the FOIA requests, Insider has contacted Katherine Lasher, director of Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity, multiple times requesting an interview.
Lasher emailed back saying that she knew about Insider’s FOIA requests and that when the legal department responded, she would tell us the appropriate person to interview.
About one month before publishing this article, Insider sent an email to Lasher, the president’s office and Steven Smith, the director of public relations, asking the university for clarification on the issue of its sexual assault record-keeping.
None of the parties responded to the email. (Click here to read a full copy of the email.)
On April 10, all the parties were emailed again. Insider said that the article was to be published April 13 and welcomed them to make a statement.
Lasher responded, saying: “I am not the (freedom of information) officer for the university, therefore, I cannot comment on your inquiry below. You should consult the policy regarding your inquiry.”
Insider emailed back by saying Lasher would know if the office keeps track of sexual assault complaints, even if she didn’t have the authority to release them.
Lasher emailed back:
Your statement is not correct. CMU publishes an annual report that includes statistics on Clery-reportable crimes. The Clery Act report is available to the public on the CMU website:
On page 12 of the report you will find the number of sex offenses reported to the CMU Police. Police also maintain a daily log of complaints and investigations.
CMU is in compliance with all state and federal reporting regulations.
I hope this helps clarify/correct your statement that, ‘Central Michigan University does not keep records of the number of students who have submitted complaints on sexual assault.’
However, the Clery Report doesn’t clarify how many sexual assault complaints were received by the University. The Clery data also doesn’t give any information on how many students were sanctioned for sexual assault.
Students who want to report a sexual assault have three choices: The survivor can choose to submit the complaint to the university, report it to the police or both.
A complaint is a brief, written statement of facts to put a person on notice of an alleged violation of the sexual misconduct policy.
Students who submit a complaint to CMU will have his or her complaint investigated by the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Diversity. If the complaint involves another student, there will be an investigation.
If the investigation finds the student in violation of the sexual misconduct policy, the student will face sanctioning from Director of Student Conduct Tom Idema. The minimum sanction for sexual assault is a suspension.
A student who reports an assault to the police can seek criminal charges. A CMU student could report a sexual assault to any police agency, including the CMU Police Department, Mount Pleasant Police Department, Isabella Sheriff’s Department and the Michigan State Police.
The Clery data doesn’t clarify how many sexual assault complaints were received by the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Diversity or the Office of Student Conduct. It also doesn’t show how many students were sanctioned for sexual assault. The data for Central’s Clery Report is compiled by the CMU Police Department.
Insider again responded to Lasher by asking for “any kind of records of the number of students who submit a complaint of sexual assault administratively.”
Lasher did not email back. The president’s office and Smith didn’t respond.
“I’m baffled that CMU thinks it isn’t obligated to count reports of assault,” Goldstein, the legal advocate, said. “Presumably, if you’re a math major at CMU, they make you show your work? So why does CMU think quantifying sexual assault on campus isn’t worth the trouble of filling a notebook?”
While CMU has chosen to stay quiet on sexual assault, the rest of the nation has been having a heated conversation about it.
In 2014, President Barack Obama began the “It’s On Us” campaign, which confronts sexual assaults on campus.
“This is on all of us, every one of us, to fight campus sexual assault,” President Obama said in a press conference. “We are going to organize campus by campus, city by city, state by state; this entire country is going to make sure that we understand what this is about and that we’re going to put a stop to it.”
Rolling Stone magazine is embroiled in controversy after it was proven that many key facts of its story of a female student University of Virginia who was allegedly gang raped could not be verified. It has since retracted the story
Despite the growing awareness of sexual assaults on college campuses, CMU’s refusal to disclose specific numbers makes it hard to know the magnitude of the problem locally.
“If an institution doesn’t possess the collective intellectual curiosity to come up with a number representing the magnitude of its problem, then it isn’t nearly dedicated enough to implement a solution,” Goldstein said.
Scope of Sexual Assault at CMU Unknown
All universities are required to report sexual assault crimes under the Jeanne Clery Act.
Jeanne Clery was a 19-year-old college student that was raped and murdered in 1987 at her Lehigh University dorm room. In aftermath of her death, Clery’s parents were shocked at the lack of information that universities provided about crimes on campus.
Three years later, the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act, later renamed the Jeanne Clery Act, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush.
Among other crimes, the Clery Act requires universities to disclose how many reports of forcible and nonforcible sexual assaults happen on campus and on some off-campus properties.
As mentioned previously, the Clery Report doesn’t clarify the number of sexual assault complaints that have been handled administratively. It also doesn’t provide any data on how many students were sanctioned for sexual assault.
Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the office of Federal Student Aid enforces the Clery Act.
“FSA conducts reviews when a complaint is received, a media event raises certain concerns, or the school’s independent audit identifies serious noncompliance,” Bradshaw said.
There are indications sexual assault could be more prevalent than what is reported in the annual Clery Report.
A 2014 report prepared by the White House Council on Women and Girls and the Office of the Vice President found that one in five women have been sexually assaulted in college.
If this statistic held true for CMU, that would mean 1,931 of the 9,656 women enrolled at the university have been or will be assaulted during their collegiate careers.
However, that is a much larger figure than what is being reported by CMU Police.
According to CMU’s Clery Report data, 19 forcible sex acts that occurred on campus have been reported to the CMU police from 2011-2013. Seventeen of those were reported to have occurred in residential facilities.
However, not all off-campus sexual assaults of students appear on the Clery Report.
An assault that occurs in “an apartment out on Deerfield, which is in the county of Isabella, even though that involves our students, we wouldn’t count that in our Clery numbers,” Lt. Larry Klaus of the CMU Police Department said.
Klaus said any assault that has occurred in Greek housing would be included in the off-campus section.
For the purposes of Clery reporting, non-campus locations include any building or property owned or controlled by a student organization that is officially recognized by the institution. It also includes any building or property owned or controlled by the institution that is used in direct support of, or in relation to, the institution’s educational purposes and is frequently used by students.
According to CMU’s Clery Report data, only two sexual offenses have been recorded to occur off-campus from 2011-2013. One sexual offense was reported to have occurred on public property during the same timespan.
However, results from FOIA responses from the Mount Pleasant Police Department, Isabella Sheriff Department and Michigan State Police indicate that the number of sexual assaults could be much higher.
The MPPD reported 33 reports of sexual assaults where the victim is between the ages of 18 to 24 from August 20, 2011, to January 30, 2015.
The Isabella County Sheriff’s Department reported 11 incidents of sexual assaults in which the victim was aged 18-24 in Mount Pleasant and Union Township from August 5, 2011, to December 15, 2014.
Michigan State Police reported one incident of sexual assault in Mount Pleasant where the victim is between the ages of 18 to 24 between August 20, 2011, and January 30, 2015.
The reports do not necessarily involve CMU students.
Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates, a student-run organization that is meant to provide support to survivors of all forms of sexual aggression, reports that it receives 200-300 contacts a year.
That could mean more than 10 times the number of victims than what is indicated in Clery Report data. However, not everyone who has contacted SAPA was sexually assaulted. SAPA also helps students dealing with other situations including dating violence and stalking.
While CMU denied FOIA requests, Wayne State University responded to a request with information. A document released by WSU shows two students filed a charge of sexual assault with the university’s student conduct office and that two students had been sanctioned for sexual assault from August 27, 2010, to December 15, 2014.
Although, WSU granted the request, the denials from CMU indicated that the public would not be entitled to know the number of sexual assault complaints if CMU kept them:
The University is denying your request because there are no responsive records —the University does not maintain “numbers” -and the Act does not require us to create such a record (MCL 15.233). To the extent your request is for specific files/records, those are exempt under Sections 13(1 )(a) of the Act (information of a personal nature which, if disclosed, would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy) and 13(2) (student records protected from disclosure under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).”
“You first asked for any annual review or report of all the sexual assault complaints and charges that the university receives in a year. This request is denied because there is no existing record responsive to your request. To the extent such record did exist, it would be exempt from disclosure as internal communications preliminary to a final agency determination of policy or action. The disclosure would also be an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of any individuals mentioned in such a record.
For the past four years, the federal government has been focusing more on sexual assaults at public universities.
Since 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has been using Title IX as a way to force universities to combat sexual assaults.
Title IX is a portion of a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs and activities.
At CMU, the Title IX office is part of the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity.
Bradshaw, the spokesman for the Department of Education, said that unlike the Clery Act, the department does not seek or collect money from institutions that don’t comply with Title IX.
“OCR will investigate any timely filed complaint that alleges discrimination covered by Title IX by a recipient institution,” Bradshaw said. “OCR can also initiate compliance reviews and directed inquiries to address systemic problems and seek systemic solutions.”
Bradshaw said the Office of Civil Rights has been tracking sexual violence as a specific issue since 2009 and have not received any complaints of CMU’s handling of sexual violence.
Bradshaw said in that timeframe, CMU’s has received two complaints that involve issues of discrimination in athletics.
Cost of Police Records
CMU Insider sent similar FOIA requests to the CMU Police Department, the Isabella County Sheriff’s Department, the Mount Pleasant Police Department and the Michigan State Police.
Unlike CMU, each of these departments have granted the requests, but usually demanded a steep fee for the information.
The first FOIA request was sent to the Isabella Sheriff Department. Insider asked for all incident reports of all forms of sexual assault that occurred in Mount Pleasant and Union Township from August 5, 2011, to December 15, 2014.
The cost of the response was $117.75 for 11 reports. Insider asked for the request to be reduced to all incident reports from August 25, 2013, to December 15, 2014. The result was five records for $52.99.
Insider asked the CMU Police for a copy of all police incident reports that pertain to any form of sexual assault from August 21, 2011 to December 15, 2014.
The response indicated there were at least 25 reports of sexual assault. The department estimated it would take 10 minutes per report to pull it together.
CMU estimated it would take a little over four hours of labor by an officer at $35.72 per hour and five hours of labor by legal assistant for review and redaction of exempt information at $26.10 per hour. This made the final estimated cost to $280.52.
Insider asked that Mount Pleasant Police Department for all incident reports of sexual assault where the victim is between the ages of 18 to 24 from Aug. 20, 2011, to Jan. 30, 2015.
The MPPD said that it would cost $1,356.05 to retrieve 33 reports and it would be about 600 pages of material. Each page would cost 25 cents and it would take more than 40 hours to receive and redact information.
CMU Insider is not the only student organization that has been taking a closer look at how the university’s sexual assault policies.
The Student Government Association took a stand against CMU’s sexual assault policies in November. In November, SGA passed a resolution authored by senior Brynn McDonnell calling for the university to change the minimum punishment for sexual assault from suspension to expulsion.
In addition, McDonnell sent a FOIA request for information about how the university handles sexual assault.
McDonnell asked for the number of sexual crimes that resulted in the suspension or expulsion of the perpetrator between 2000 and 2014.
As was the case with Insider, the university responded by saying it did not have records for the information she requested and is not obligated by law to create such records.
Insider learned of McDonnell’s denial during an event hosted by the student group Students Advocating for Gender Equality. Insider received a copy of her response on the first day of the spring 2015 semester.
SAGE held a demonstration in October calling for a change in sexual assault policy.
The group wanted the university to expel any student found guilty of sexual assault by the Student Code of Conduct.
While only a little more than 30 students attended the protest, more than 8,000 people signed its online petition.
Hannah Mollett, a senior at Central Michigan University and president of SAGE, said the group wrote a letter to Ross asking for changes. The group received a response several days later.
“It was really polite, but it wasn’t the answer we wanted to hear,” Mollett said. “He basically said that CMU was doing the best they could (on sexual assault), but I don’t agree with that.”
However, she said she thinks administrators seemed to be at least willing to listen to activists’ suggestions.
After the protest, CMU made a prepared statement about the university’s policies on sanctioning perpetrators.
“My daughter attends CMU. I share the concerns of those protesting, and I assure you, our student code of conduct process considers survivor requests and campus safety,” Tony Voisin, associate vice president for student affairs, said. “We have expelled students. Depending on the situation, including requests of the survivor, we also have suspended students until the survivor has graduated.”
A 2003 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that within three years following their release, 5.3 percent of sex offenders — men who had committed rape or sexual assault — were rearrested for another sex crime.
Potentially allowing a student found guilty of sexual assault under the Student Code of Conduct could result in another person being victimized despite the survivor no longer being on campus.
Lasher was also quoted in the statement.
“We appreciate and share the concern to maintain a safe, respectful and nonthreatening environment on our campus,” Lasher said. “In doing so, we will continue to follow the laws and regulations that advance safety and ensure due process.”
Despite these two student initiatives, the new CMU sexual misconduct policy keeps the minimum punishment for sexual assault at a suspension.
Still more questions than answers
About a month before that new policy was unveiled, the attendees at Speak Up, Speak Out panel were curious about sexual assaults at CMU.
After showing four videos, Laurel Zwissler, professor in philosophy and facilitator of the event, encouraged the audience to ask questions for the panelists.
“What is Central’s current policy on sexual assault?”
“Is Central allowed to deny admission based on a conviction of a sexually based crime?”
“Have blue lights around campus stopped any sexual assaults?”
Many of the questions the panelists struggles or could not answer for the audience.
Zwissler said the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity was invited but chose to not come.
“The (Speak Up, Speak Out) committee asked that the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity to participate tonight and share some information on how federal changes to the civil rights act affects us at CMU,” Zwissler said to the audience. “And they told us they were not sending anyone.”
Update: Language was modified to clarify institutions’ responsibilities under the Clery Act.