- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights is conducting a sex discrimination enforcement initiative aimed at university health centers.
This comes as a follow-up to the OCR’s Title IX and Section 1557 compliance review of Michigan State tied to Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of gymnasts and others while employed by the university.
That review, which was conducted by the OCR’s Midwest regional office, concluded with a voluntary resolution agreement with Michigan State in August.
The OCR has already identified five major universities currently under review based on allegations of sex discrimination — including sexual harassment as well as abuse.
Some of those universities already have litigation against them, so there is a factual basis to go off of. The OCR will do a full review — pulling data and policies to better understand how many complaints these universities have received and how they have handled the complaints.
Pamela Barron, OCR deputy director, said her office was inspired to act especially after listening to Nassar victims come forward and share their stories.
Barron pointed to the speech gymnast Aly Raisman gave while accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2018 ESPYS.
“All we needed was one adult to have the integrity to stand between us and Larry Nassar,” Raisman told the audience. “If just one adult had listened, believed and acted, the people standing before you on this stage would have never met him.”
Said Barron: “When you hear those words when you’re an adult in the health care arena, you think: We can’t fail these athletes. We can’t fail these patients.”
The U.S. HHS OCR did not receive a single complaint from Nassar victims. That was troubling, Barron said, and her office needed to do a better job of making people aware of their rights.
Once the OCR decided to get involved, its staffers had multiple conversations with survivor groups, including Valerie von Frank, the founder of POSSE — a support group for parents that was created around the time of Nassar’s sentencing hearing in January 2017.
“It was heartbreaking when we got off the phone,” Barron said. “They helped us understand how these things really occurred and gave us the real-world knowledge we needed so we could create better policies.”
More than 100 survivors had their parents in the room when Nassar abused them — which led the OCR to realize it needed to create a better chaperone method. Previously, the OCR was using best practices from the AMA and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Barron said the current initiative will be an endeavor that takes a couple of years.
“These things don’t happen overnight,” Barron said. “It will have to go through a process; it’s very vetted. These things will take time.”
Asked what she hopes her office will get out of the initiative, Barron said “We hope from this we get systemic change. We really hope we are part of changing the narrative. We want to honor these gymnasts. Somebody has to go in there and do the nitty-gritty work, digging through the policies, and asking, ‘Did this protect this student or this athlete or this patient in this situation?’ And if not, how can we fix it? We’re out there to fix it.”