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Allegations Against Larry Nassar Began Shortly After He Joined Michigan State University


More and more women keep coming forward to speak at the sentencing hearing of Larry Nassar. He's the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor who's been convicted of sexual assault and child pornography. So far, about 160 women say he abused them. Three leaders of USA Gymnastics resigned this week. And now people are waiting to see what might happen at Michigan State.

To get a sense of the university's role in all of this, I spoke with Matt Mencarini of the Lansing State Journal. He says university staff began hearing complaints about Nassar soon after he was hired.

MATT MENCARINI: There are two women who were 16 at the time. Both said that they told Kathie Klages about abuse in 1997 at the same time.

CHANG: And Klages is who, again?

MENCARINI: So Kathie Klages is the now former MSU women's gymnastics coach. She ran a youth program back in the '90s. These two women now say that they told her about the abuse, specifically what Nassar was doing, and she cautioned them from reporting. Klages has since retired from the university. She had been there for 27 years as the head coach. She retired a day after the university suspended her for the way she handled a team meeting following the IndyStar story in September of 2016 when sexual assault allegations against Nassar were public for the first time.

CHANG: And since 1997, since those first allegations surfaced - and that was his first year at the university, let's just point out - has the university investigated any allegations that have since piled up?

MENCARINI: Once, and that was in 2014. A then-recent graduate went to see him for hip pain and back pain at the MSU office, and she reported him for sexual abuse less than two weeks later. There was a Title IX investigation, and there was a criminal investigation off of that - the same woman's report.

The university investigation cleared him in about three months. It found that he - that the woman did not understand the nuanced difference between sexual assault and an osteopathic medical procedure. The nuanced difference is the actual words for that Title IX report. And so those were dismissed, and he was allowed to return to clinical duties. The police investigation dragged on for another 16 months while he was allowed to see patients at the university. The local prosecutor's office ultimately decided not to charge him in that investigation.

CHANG: So how many people at the university seemed to have known something and chose to look the other way?

MENCARINI: Well, there's the coach from 1997. Between 1998 and 2000, a softball player has since said that she told three different trainers about him. The Title IX investigation included the Title IX coordinator, four medical experts they brought in to help evaluate what he did. It also included some involvement from his boss. And the general counsel's office was also made aware of that investigation as it ended.

CHANG: What's the university's position at this point? I mean, how is the leadership defending itself?

MENCARINI: Generally they're saying that the university wasn't put on notice or no one at the university believed that Nassar was committing criminal conduct before September of 2016 when newspaper stories started picking it up. They're being sued by at least 140 of these women and girls. In motions to dismiss those lawsuits, they've said that - that they weren't aware. They've said that the statute of limitations has expired on many of these cases. And they've said that Title IX does not apply to women or girls who are not students or employees of the university. The general stance has been that no one there was aware of Nassar's criminal conduct until this all started to kind of unfold in the last 16 months.

CHANG: There have been calls for the university's president, Lou Anna Simon, to step down. How likely is that?

MENCARINI: That's really hard to know. The board had for weeks stood united behind her. And just this last weekend, the first, like, fracture on that board was seen. Mitch Lyons, a trustee, put out a statement that said he did not - he no longer supported her, and he was calling on her to step down. So there's at least one fracture, one dissenter among that board. It's hard to know what they all think. Very few of them have spoken publicly on the record about their thoughts on Simon and their thoughts on how the university has handled all of this.

CHANG: What do victims want the school to do?

MENCARINI: A lot of them have called for Simon to step down. A lot of them want change. But even more simply, a lot of them want to be heard. They want an apology. They want the university to take responsibility for what they did.

CHANG: Matt Mencarini is a reporter with the Lansing State Journal. Thanks very much.

MENCARINI: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.