Sex assault fight spurs civil rights complaints

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

An ongoing federal crackdown on campus sexual assault has brought the issue to the forefront on college campuses, and sparked debate between victims' activists and advocates for the accused.

The federal government took decisive action last year against campus sexual assault, announcing investigations of dozens of schools, including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University, for their handling of complaints. The inquiries followed President Barack Obama's formation of a task force, announced a year ago last week, that suggested ways of preventing and responding to assaults.

Supporters of the campaign say the response is long overdue after years of universities ignoring or giving lip service to women who reported assault. But critics say federal and school officials are going too far, trampling the due process rights of the accused and punishing them, in some instances, for consensual sex.

"They are making a mess out of things, making a hot mess out of going to college," said Deborah Gordon, a Bloomfield Hills attorney who represents a student who is suing several UM officials over his suspension for sex-assault allegations. "What the government has done is to take a bunch of political soundbites and thrown people's due process rights out."

Karin Roland, organizing director of UltraViolet, a women's rights group, countered that sexual misconduct is real and needs to be taken seriously. Universities, Roland said, can no longer marginalize victims of sexual misconduct.

"For a long time, schools have actually gotten away with sweeping this problem under the rug," Roland said. "Our members feel strongly that bringing this info out in the light will push schools to handle it better."

Critics such as Gordon say there's more heat than light surrounding the issue these days.

Gordon represents former UM student Drew Sterrett. The New York resident, who lived in UM's Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall, was accused of sexual misconduct by a female colleague after his freshman year was over.

According to his suit, Sterrett had one consensual sexual encounter with the woman, in March 2012. The suit claims the woman told UM in August she had been assaulted, after her mother found her diary.

He was interviewed by university officials once — on the phone via Skype — never given a hearing or presented with charges and then suspended until at least 2016, Gordon said.

University officials handling these cases are inept, and branding people who are innocent, Gordon said. She argues that Sterrett's accuser is likely graduating next year from UM while his life is on hold as he waits to resume his education.

"Everybody is running around hysterical about sexual assault on campus," Gordon said. "The whole system is out of control. Universities are totally throwing out the window longtime established rights. The federal government needs to rein this in. ... People's lives are at stake."

When the suit was filed last May, UM spokeswoman Kelley Cunningham said the school would defend itself "vigorously."

Conservative commentator George Will argued in a column this month that federal authorities are overreaching.

"The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights has stripped colleges and universities of a crucial component of self government," wrote Will, who drew protests when he spoke at MSU last month. "Using ludicrous statistics based on flimsy social science to manufacture hysteria about a 'rape epidemic' on campuses, the federal government is mandating the overthrow of due process in adjudicating accusations of sexual assault."

The government dramatically widened its oversight of how colleges and universities handle sexual assault reports last year.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights issued a report in May listing 55 post-secondary institutions under investigation. By the end of 2014, the number had risen to 94.

Though the cases under investigation at the schools are confidential, it became public last year that UM was facing an inquiry over its handling of sex assault allegations against former football player Brendan Gibbons. The Wolverine kicker was arrested after a female student accused him of rape in 2009, but he was allowed to remain enrolled and on the team until four years later.

When the Education Department began its investigations, it opened one case at UM and two cases at MSU. In October, federal officials opened a case at GVSU. All of the cases remain open.

Since then, the universities have updated their sexual misconduct policies and taken steps to show they will take violations seriously.

For instance, UM said last week it would join 26 other colleges and universities in a sexual assault "climate survey" this spring. More than 800,000 students are expected to participate.

In an email this month, UM President Mark Schlissel announced the school as surveying 3,000 students to assess the climate on campus. Such surveys were one of the suggestions made by Obama's task force.

"Learning about the experiences of students and the degree to which students feel safe and respected will help us to better understand how we can more effectively address and prevent sexual misconduct," Schlissel wrote.

A new federal policy requires schools under investigation to release reports annually on sexual misconduct allegations.

Last month, MSU released a report showing that from August 2011 to August 2014, the school received 174 reports of sexual misconduct involving students. Of those, 47 were investigated and 127 did not undergo formal inquiries.

At UM, students reported 129 alleged incidents of sexual misconduct to officials from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014, according to a similar report released in late November. Of those incidents, UM found 11 violations and expelled one student, according to the report.

Earlier this month, Western Michigan University instituted a policy aimed at making it easier for students and others to report sexual assault incidents. It calls for the school's Office of Institutional Equity to handle sexual misconduct reports, with those inquiries separate from police investigations.

Women's rights activists argue the harder line being taken by federal and campus officials is needed to protect students.

Emily Kollaritsch, an MSU student who said federal officials are investigating the handling of her complaint against another student, said it was unacceptable to let the status quo remain.

"Sexual violence really separates people," said Kollaritsch, a senior. "You feel isolated, alone. A school that embraces you, provides resources ... is one step toward doing the right thing for students."

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Associated Press contributed.