News

Actions

Lawsuit alleges Eastern Michigan University 'turned a blind eye' to sexual assaults

Posted at 5:39 PM, Mar 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-24 23:10:31-04

YPSILANTI, Mich. (WXYZ) — A federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of 11 women accused Eastern Michigan University of covering up rapes that occurred over a multi-year period.

It comes after multiple former students were charged with rape over the last year.

The suit was filed in the name of 11 Jane Does to protect the identities of the women, and says university officials "turned a blind eye or were deliberately indifferent to reported sexual assaults."

It names the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents, the school's police department, Chief of Police Robert Heighes, Deputy Chief Daniel Karrick, the school's Title IX Director Melody Werner, as well as the local chapters of the Alpha Sigma Phi and Delta Tau Delta fraternities and their national organizations.

The 13 count lawsuit lays out detailed allegations made by the women about what happened during their rapes, and how the school responded. It accuses the school of failing to respond properly to the allegations, as well as both gross negligence and negligence, as well as sexual discrimination and other civil rights violations.

In one case, during which a woman identified as Jane Doe 1 alleges she was gang-raped by two men following a fraternity party in 2018, the lawsuit alleges that the school did not properly investigate the alleged sexual assault. The lawsuit goes on to contend that the school focused their investigation onto social media posts the victim's boyfriend made about the two men she accused of rape and that her boyfriend was arrested in connection with those posts.

The lawsuit also contends that the EMU police department did not follow proper procedures in the case, which "hindered and continues to hinder" efforts by any other law enforcement agency to investigate.

This lawsuit also blasts efforts by Werner in response to the case, saying she told the woman, “There is no point in reporting it. You’re going to have to go through all of this to report it. They’re in a fraternity. Greek community is going to back them up.”

The suit also says that Werner told the woman she would have to contact the Ypsilanti Police Department herself to report the rape and that “no one is going to believe [her]” and “it’s not even worth reporting.”

Eastern Michigan University issued the following statement to those assertions in the lawsuit, which they say are false:

Melody Werner categorically denies ever saying anything of that nature to any individual reporting a sexual assault. Her career as a Title IX professional is dedicated to exactly the opposite - encouraging survivors to come forward and report what happened to them and to support them in any way possible.

They also released the following statement about the Title IX investigation that is currently underway at the school:

To the Eastern Michigan University community:

I want to update you on something I shared with you last September when I issued a campus message regarding our deep concern about the reports of criminal sexual conduct involving our former students that occurred off campus several years ago. I noted at the time, and this stands today, that we stand by and strongly support all survivors of sexual assault, and that this must be reflected in the University’s actions and policies.

There is no place for sexual violence in our campus community and we will always take swift action to stop it. An important part of that commitment is communicating with students, faculty, staff and the community whenever something like this occurs, as well as providing information about the University’s handling of such cases.

Understandably, there has been strong interest in these cases, focusing in part on the University’s role in aiding victims and ensuring their safety. We understand and appreciate that crimes such as those alleged to have been committed by former students demand close scrutiny and review of the University’s handling of the reports of sexual assault it received.

We have actively and thoroughly cooperated with inquiries regarding these cases – both from Ypsilanti Police and from news media. Transparent communication and self-examination helps us understand what we can and need to do better to help protect the safety of our students, faculty and staff.

Our actions since learning about these cases last summer include:

  • The University immediately initiated a thorough review into the original allegations, which occurred at off-campus residences several years ago. Our initial review of Title IX and Department of Public Safety records indicated that in no case did a complainant come forward who wished to proceed with a formal investigation by our Title IX or Public Safety office.
  • When a complainant came forward to University Police last summer, we immediately and proactively contacted the Ypsilanti Police Department, which has investigative jurisdiction because the incidents occurred off campus and in the city of Ypsilanti. The University has actively provided information and supported the Ypsilanti Police investigation throughout the fall and into this winter.
  • Last fall (Sept. 25, 2020), the University announced that it engaged the external firm of Cozen O’Connor, with whom the University had no prior relationship, to review and audit our Title IX and related policies, procedures, and actions regarding these events. Cozen O’Connor is nationally renowned in the area of Title IX investigations, and the two principals engaged in the EMU work are both former prosecutors working in the areas of family violence, sexual assault, and child abuse.
  • We initiated this review to determine whether proper processes were followed by University offices in the reporting of sexual assault cases and, if not, why not, and to identify recommendations as to what steps should be taken to ensure that our students are protected and supported. At the time we announced the independent external review, we stated that the results of it would be made public. We expect that the review will be completed later this spring and will share it publicly once it is received.
  • Prior to the current review of our Title IX compliance, the University initiated a comprehensive independent external review of Title IX polices and procedures in March 2019. That review was conducted by Rebecca Leitman Veidlinger, Esq., PLLC, who leads a distinguished team of attorneys and investigators with deep Title IX experience in higher education. The firm’s final report concluded that “Eastern Michigan University’s Title IX compliance office and related policies and procedures reflects that the institution has made a very meaningful commitment to addressing sexual misconduct in its educational community.”
All of this aside, though, we can always do better. Let me be clear: no student should suffer a sexual assault while part of our community. Worse, when one occurs and the survivor does not experience the kind of support they need and deserve, the institution must pay attention and strive tirelessly to fix whatever it was that created such an environment. Every student should feel comfortable using University services – and particularly our Title IX office – when they have experienced a sexual assault.

To that end, Cozen O’Connor’s work is extensive, and involves a look at the entire student experience throughout the time in question. As noted above, any and all gaps identified will be made public, and will be addressed aggressively by implementing expanded educational processes and reporting procedures in all offices in which a Title IX complaint might be made. Details of these steps and actions will be shared with the campus community.

To reiterate, Eastern Michigan University takes all claims of sexual assault and sexual misconduct seriously and is committed to the thorough investigation of these incidents. If you have any information or wish to report any incident of sexual assault or misconduct, please contact EMU Police at 734-487-1222 or at dps_questions@emich.edu, or file an incident report with the EMU Title IX Office.

Most respectfully,

James Smith, Ph.D.

SafeHouse Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose mission is to provide safety, support, advocacy and resources for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence and their children, and to work relentlessly to change the systems and attitudes that allow this abuse to continue.

SafeHouse Center HelpLine: (734) 995-5444
TTY SafeHouse Center HelpLine: (734) 973-2227
SafeHouse Center Business Line: (734) 973-0242

Email: info@safehousecenter.org

Address: 4100 Clark Rd. Ann Arbor, MI 48105