Michigan State sued over sexual assault claims

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

A Michigan State University student allegedly sexually assaulted one student, then another two years later, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday that alleges the school delayed investigating the cases.

The two are among four cases in the suit, which alleges that MSU was negligent and violated the civil rights of four current students who reported campus sexual assaults by other MSU students.

The suit comes as federal officials sanctioned Michigan State nearly three months ago for its handling of sexual misconduct complaints, scores of universities across the nation are under federal investigation and first lady Sue Snyder is working to make the state a national model for addressing the issue.

The four cases in the lawsuit illustrate the numerous problems in MSU’s process for handling complaints, said Jennifer B. Salvatore, an Ann Arbor-based attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“The amount of resources put into the investigation of sex misconduct isn’t enough to do a prompt and equitable investigation,” Salvatore said. “Colleges have an obligation to thoroughly and promptly investigate sexual misconduct.”

MSU officials declined to discuss the lawsuit.

“MSU does not comment on pending or potential litigation,” Jason Cody, MSU spokesman, said via email. “Sexual misconduct in all of its forms is an issue university leaders take very seriously. Over the past several years, MSU has taken significant steps to increase resources for survivors and revise policies to hear complaints in a timely and fair manner consistent with federal guidance.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, details the steps taken by four students who filed formal complaints with the university, and outlines alleged failures on behalf of MSU, including the lengthy time it took to investigate complaints.

It was filed by students Emily Kollaritsch, Shayna Gross and students identified only as Jane Roe 1 and Jane Roe 2. Named as defendants are MSU President Lou Anna Simon, Vice President for Student Affairs Denise Maybank, the Board of Trustees and Kappa Sigma fraternity.

Under federal guidelines, it should take colleges and universities 60 days to investigate campus sexual misconduct complaints, Salvatore said, but MSU often took seven months or more.

There also have been procedural irregularities and failures to provide appropriate measures to separate complainants and alleged perpetrators, according to the suit.

“The failure to respond appropriately has perpetuated a hostile educational environment on campus,” Salvatore said.

The suit alleges that a man known as John Doe 1 tried to rape Kollaritsch in his dorm room and then sexually assaulted her in the stands during an MSU football game in October 2011. She reported the incidents to campus officials in January 2012 and filed a formal complaint in February.

The suit alleges that the university did nothing to ensure she would not encounter John Doe 1 while on campus, and that she did several times. She even slept in her friends’ dorm rooms because she feared sleeping in her own room and sought a personal protection order.

Kollaritsch received an investigation report from MSU 200 days after she filed her initial complaint – 140 days longer than federal guidelines, and 80 days longer that MSU’s own policies, according to the suit. The investigation did not accurately reflect the facts, and even downplayed them, according to the suit.

John Doe 1 was put on probationary status, required to write an essay and obtain a letter from an employer that he could abide by the university’s code of conduct. He also was given a “no contact” order by MSU.

Soon after John Doe 1 was sanctioned, he began stalking, harassing and intimidating her, according to the suit. But the university did not provide any resources to keep her safe and even discouraged her from pursuing a formal complaint.

One official frequently suggested she needed mental health services and another told Kollaritsch that “what happened was not that bad because it was not actual rape ... (she) should be happy that John Doe was sanctioned at all,” according to the suit.

Meanwhile, John Doe 1 also allegedly sexually assaulted Gross in February 2013 at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house, in her dorm rom and in his dorm room. He informed her of the sex the next day, but she only remembered some parts of the evening, according to the suit, which says she had been drinking alcohol.

Gross reported the incidents to MSU officials in February 2014 but they didn’t hold a disciplinary hearing until nearly a year after the complaint was filed against John Doe 1 – even though they said the investigation would be complete in 90 days. She emailed Amanda Garcia-Williams, MSU’s Title IX coordinator, many times during the investigation but did not get prompt responses, sometimes hearing back a week after her inquiry, according to the suit.

After the disciplinary hearing in January 2015, expulsion was recommended for John Doe 1. He appealed twice. A new investigation was launched in March 2015, 13 months after her initial complaint, by an independent law firm, even though there was no authority outlined in MSU’s policies for the MSU official to order the new investigation, the suit alleges. That investigation found that Gross and John Doe 1 had engaged in sex but it could not find evidence of nonconsent.

Gross appealed the finding, but it was denied.

In the case involving Jane Roe 1, she went to the hospital for a rape kit after she was sexually assaulted by John Doe 2 in November 2013, the suit alleges. She filed a formal complaint with the university in February 2014. She and her mother followed up at least six times with MSU’s Title IX coordinator for an update on the investigation.

The complainant’s mother even drove to campus to speak with Garcia-Williams directly but was told she was busy in meetings all day, according to the suit. It wasn’t until December 2014 that the investigation was completed; it found there was not enough evidence that John Doe 2 violated the university’s sexual harassment policy.

In the case involving Jane Roe 2, she was sexually assaulted by John Doe 3 in August 2013, the complaint alleges. She filed a formal complaint three days later. An investigation was conducted and found that he violated the MSU Student Code of Conduct.

After a hearing in January 2014, John Doe 3 was expelled. He appealed but the decision was upheld. According to the suit, in May 2014 he was given permission to return to campus for graduation. Jane Roe 2 appealed the decision since she was graduating, but the appeal was denied.