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MSU’s opportunity: Use Nassar to teach how abuse gets missed

The "Sparty" statue on the MSU campus
Betsy Weber
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
Advocates say MSU has a rare opening to talk frankly about how adults fail to see child sexual abuse.

Larissa Boyce has good days and bad days.

Today is a good day. Boyce’s husband, Adam, a teacher, and their three oldest kids are at school, leaving just her and three-year-old Skyler to visit Grandpa and the central passion of Skyler’s life: Grandpa’s tractor.

“All done with tractor,” Skyler announces solemnly at the end of their ride. (A few minutes later: “Go tractor?”)

On the bad days, Boyce can’t sleep. Or she has night terrors, waking up to a startled Adam. That’s when she pulls out the blue paperback notebook with happy little palm trees dotting the cover. She’s been writing in it over the last year, using it as a place to put what started out as sadness, which turned to anger, then to numbness.

But on good days like this, she can think about the possibilities.

“I feel like MSU could be leaders in the area of sexual abuse,” she says in her parents’ kitchen, notebook on her lap. “Use this to not just make the culture at MSU better, but at other colleges too.”

It’s been just over a year since the abuse accusations against former Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar – who also worked as a professor, clinician and team doctor at Michigan State University – became national news. By some counts, more than 100 women and girls have come forward since then, alleging Nassar sexually abused them under the guise of treatment.

After pleading guilty to federal child porn charges in July, Nassar faces sentencing next month. He’s also heading to trial for multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct at the state level.

Boyce says she was repeatedly abused by Nassar as a teenager, some 20 years ago. Both she and a fellow gymnast at the time, Sarah (not her real name) say they told their MSU coach that Nassar was digitally penetrating them during medical treatment, without their consent.

But Coach Kathie Klages never reported the alleged abuse, Boyce and Sarah say. Instead, she convinced them that they had misunderstood innocent medical techniques used by a doctor they were “lucky” to even see. Klages, for her part, denies any knowledge of abuse, and stepped down after she was suspended from her job earlier this year.

Credit C/O Larissa Boyce
Larissa Boyce during her gymnastics career in the 90's

Now, Boyce says, her and her husband’s alma mater has an opportunity to make sure this never happens to anyone else.

“I would love to see Kathie go around and share with people how he had fooled her,” Boyce says, referring to Nassar. “And say, ‘Listen, these are the red flags. This is what happened to me. This is why I believed him. This is why I believed him over the gymnasts.’”

First steps: new policies to protect child safety 

Sarah saw the new fliers posted all over MSU Pediatrics.

“I took one of my little guys to the doctor, and they had this thing on the glass on the window, [saying] that MSU has chaperones for all patients,” she says.

Credit Michigan State University
A notice for patients about MSU's new safety policies

“MSU HealthTeam is committed to providing a safe place for patients to receive care,” the posters read. “To help create a safe place, we require chaperones for sensitive examinations. Most exams of children and adolescents require a parent or guardian to be in the room.”

“It was good for me,” Sarah says. “I was like, oh my gosh, this hits close to home. I’m like checking him in and I’m getting this sick feeling in my stomach because I know why this is happening. That is me. Why was that not on the glass when I was little?”

It brought her back to the day she says Klages pulled her out of practice at Jenison field house, and into the coach’s office.

“I remember sitting on the carpet in my leotard, all chalky from the bars,” Sarah says. “And the way she was asking me [about Nassar], it didn’t feel like it was for my best interest – it was like, 'We need to know what you guys talked about … and we’re talking about a doctor who’s in and out here all the time.' I was like, is he going to come in and say he’s not doing this?”  

Sarah says she waited for Klages and the other coaches to tell her dad what was happening. Talking to him herself felt too embarrassing.

But Klages never told the school, the police, or the girls’ parents about their concerns, Boyce and Sarah say.

“And I remember feeling kind of disappointed and kind of relieved,” Sarah says. “Like, maybe I don’t want to open this can of worms…. Now that I’m a parent, that would infuriate me.”  

Multiple women say they told MSU staff – whether it was trainers, Klages, or even the school’s Title IX office – about Nassar’s abuse. But each time, they say, the response was the same: You’re wrong. This isn’t sexual. It’s medical.

Advocates say Michigan State University has a rare platform now to help students, staff, and the broader community understand how child molesters use our trust against us – and how even the best-intentioned adults can fail to see abuse.

What good training looks like

Katelyn Brewer is the CEO of Darkness to Light, a nonprofit that provides training and awareness education about child predators.

Their training sessions are documentary-style: videos of adult survivors, talking about the abuse they experienced as kids, and their abusers' tactics for staying undetected.

“He was very charismatic,” one woman says in the video. “People liked being around him.” An older couple talk about how charming the new pastor was at their church, always helping out and stepping up to spend time with their son. “He was Mr. Cool,” they say. An Olympic swimmer recalls how her friend’s father was always the fun dad. “If we were climbing trees, he was climbing trees.”


But Brewer says getting organizations (even ones that work directly with kids) on board with prevention efforts can be a tough sell.

“It is literally like jabbing a needle under people’s finger nails,” she says. “Because they don’t want their brand associated with child sexual abuse. And [they think] if we do prevention training, then people are going to think there’s a problem.”

What MSU is already doing, and still could do

But a crisis like the Nassar case can create an opening.

“Well, I think we have an opportunity now, I really do,” says MSU spokesman Jason Cody. “If there’s a conversation we can start, if there’s a broadening of people’s minds that we can do that will help prevent that, we of course are going to take every opportunity we can to help do that. And I think that’s our responsibility.”

Already, Cody says, MSU is tackling this issue head on: rolling out more background checks, beefing up oversight of youth programs, and reminding staff about their mandatory reporting requirements.

“There were a lot of people who knew Larry Nassar, who worked here at MSU, his family, neighbors – who were obviously, at the beginning, very shocked at the allegations,” Cody says.

“So what is that? That is, people, for whatever reason, and I’m not trying to fault these people, but that is people failing to recognizing or failing to understand what they’re being told, or about a potential problem. And I think that’s what we need to help change.”

Long-term change

So what would it look like if MSU wrote a blank check to the people who help adults learn how abusers gain our trust and then use it against us?

“For me, it’s a public health-style campaign,” says Darkness to Light CEO Katelyn Brewer. “If you’re a mandatory reporter and you’re not trained, you’re not going to know what to do [when you see signs of abuse] and you’re going to be overwhelmed.”

First, she says, MSU could set a measurable goal: maybe it’s as simple as figuring out what people already know about child sexual abuse. Maybe it’s increasing reports, or greater awareness, or just hearing people talk about prevention in casual conversations.

“Saturate the campus with a campaign nobody can avoid,” Brewer says. But don’t try to push or pummel people with information that makes them feel like they’ve done something wrong, she says. Instead, build a connection for them. Have survivors tell their stories. “And say: 'These are the things that would have prevented me from being abused.’ That allows people to connect with a person and realize, maybe I could be the one person who helps you.”

But it may not be as simple as having MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon call up Larissa Boyce and invite her to campus to be part of an awareness and training campaign. The university is in the middle of litigation with many of Nassar’s alleged victims, Boyce included.

"All our plaintiffs  want to see change in the system that can prevent this from happening again," says attorney Mick Grewal, who represents Boyce and several others in their civil suits against MSU. "Including education for adults and children so that they can come forward and talk about sexual assault without being afraid. 

But Boyce says if that call ever does come, she’s in.

“That would redeem the situation, almost, at least a little bit,” she says. “And show that they really do care and want to change. And just be better than the other schools that have experienced this.”

That’s one thing that she and MSU say they agree on that: that out of these horrific abuse allegations, now, there’s an opportunity for real change.  

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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