Suit: MSU discouraged report of alleged rape by athletes

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Michigan State University’s campus counseling center discouraged a female student from contacting police after she claimed she was raped by three prominent basketball players, according to her complaint Monday filed in federal court.

According to the suit, the rape occurred in April 2015, a few days after MSU had been defeated by Duke University in the college basketball Final Four and the team had returned to East Lansing.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, comes on the heels of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal that rocked MSU and follows a string of sexual assault allegations against Spartan athletes.

It also comes as MSU faces investigations over its handling of complaints against Nassar from the Michigan attorney general’s office, state lawmakers and Congress, as well as an inquiry into the school’s handling of Title IX complaints by the U.S. Department of Education.

“There are some issues with the culture at Michigan State, and those need to be addressed,” said Karen Truszkowski, a Lansing-based attorney who filed the suit.

The week after the alleged assault, the woman went to MSU’s Counseling Center and disclosed the incident to a staff member, the suit says. When she told the employee that the rape involved members of the basketball team, another person was brought into the room and they told the victim she could file a police report but cautioned her about the consequences of doing so, according to the complaint.

“The MSUCC staff made it clear to (the victim) that if she chose to notify the police, she faced an uphill battle that would create anxiety and unwanted media attention and publicity as had happened with many other female students who were sexually assaulted by well-known athletes,” according to the lawsuit.

MSU’s response to the victim at the counseling center and other places on campus illustrates a culture that is indifferent to victims, prioritizes athletes over student safety and puts young women at heightened risk for sexual assault and its fallout, according to the lawsuit.

“Discouraging female students from reporting sexual assaults committed by student athletes plausibly creates an environment where football and basketball players can sexually assault females without repercussion,” the suit says.

The complaint seeks unspecified damages and a court order requiring MSU to take “effective steps to prevent sex-based discrimination and harassment, including sexual assault, in all its programs and activities.”

The lawsuit is the latest to haunt Michigan State in the wake of the Larry Nassar child predator scandal, in which the sports doctor assaulted victims over 20 years. A Detroit News investigation found that 14 staff members at MSU were informed of allegations of misconduct by Nassar over two decades before his arrest, and the university faces lawsuits filed by more than 250 victims.

The suit also comes after three ex-MSU football players recently pleaded guilty to a reduced, archaic charge of seducing an unmarried woman and avoided jail time in an alleged sex assault reported in January 2017.

Truszkowski represented the victim involved in the case against ex-football players Josh King, Donnie Corley and Demetric Vance.

In April 2017, football player Auston Robertson was kicked off the team after being charged with forcing a woman to have sex with him in his apartment.

The MSU basketball players were not named in the lawsuit filed Monday.

MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said Monday the university does not comment on pending legislation.

According to the suit, the rape occurred in April 2015, a few days after MSU had been defeated by Duke University in the college basketball Final Four and the team had returned to East Lansing.

The victim, then an 18-year-old MSU student studying to be a sports journalist, was at Harper’s Bar in East Lansing with her roommate. After midnight, some basketball players arrived and one of them offered to buy the victim a drink and introduce her to other teammates, according to the suit.

One of the team members invited the woman to a party and lied and said her roommate was on her way there, the suit alleges.

She accepted a ride with two of the basketball players and ended up at an apartment where one of them lived, but her roommate was not there and there was no party, according to the lawsuit. The victim was feeling very hungry, thirsty and “discombobulated,” the suit says. She tried to text but could not control her thumbs and the suit alleges she thought she may have been drugged.

One of the players pulled her into a bedroom and told the victim, “You are mine for the night,” according to the suit, but she was able to leave the bedroom. The player who lived at the apartment offered to show the victim basketball memorabilia, and the room went dark, according to the suit.

She was thrown face-down on the bed and held in place while one of the players raped her, the suit alleges, then the other two players came in and took turns raping her.

The next morning, the victim went back to her dorm room. Unsure what to do, she told a friend what had happened, the suit says.

“Plaintiff was distraught, traumatized and crying,” the suit says.

The following week, her friend took her to MSU’s counseling center, where officials allegedly told her she could go to police, but implied that it was not in her best interest to report the assault, according to the suit.

“Plaintiff was told by the MSUCC staff that they had seen a lot of these cases with ‘guys with big names’ and the best thing to do is to ‘just get yourself better,’ ” the suit says. “Plaintiff was expressly told by MSUCC staff that, ‘if you pursue this, you are going to be swimming with some really big fish.’ ”

The counseling center staff also failed to advise the victim to seek medical care, outline her option to take the complaint to MSU’s Office of Institutional Equity, or notify her of her Title IX rights, the suit alleges.

MSU has been under federal monitoring for violating Title IX in the handling of sexual assault cases on campus. Title IX is a federal law that prohibits educational programs or activities from discriminating against someone on the basis of their sex.

MSU policy requires employees, except for those identified as confidential sources, “to promptly report incidents of sexual harassment, sexual violence, sexual misconduct, stalking and relationship violence” to the Office of Institutional Equity and MSU Police. The MSU Counseling Center — which has been folded into MSU Counseling & Psychiatric Services — is listed by the school as a confidential source.

MSU is in the midst of a re-examination of its counseling services, a process begun under former President Lou Anna Simon after MSU determined in 2016 that it was ill-equipped to handle the number of requests for counseling on campus and reorganized the main center for that purpose. The school is searching for a new director for that area.

The suit does not address whether MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo was aware of the sexual assault allegation.

Lorenzo Santavicca, MSU student body president, said the allegations in the suit show that new leadership and structural changes are needed at the counseling center.

“This is a cultural issue and a systemic one,” Santavicca said. “It’s disheartening. Promoting safety and security should be the number one thing ... MSU is going to have a lot more to answer for.”

The lawsuit alleges the MSU student was not informed of her right to have a no-contact order to keep the alleged assailants out of her dorm in the Brody complex. The suit added that she would often see the basketball players in the cafeteria, even though they did not live in the complex, causing her to experience panic and flashbacks.

“Plaintiff lived in fear every day that she would see her attackers,” the suit says. “In October 2015, the Plaintiff had become so traumatized, depressed and withdrawn to the point that she was admitted to the Sparrow Hospital outpatient day-program for intensive psychiatric treatment.”

She stopped attending classes in fall 2015 because of her mental condition and withdrew, according to the suit, which says the university gave her a tuition refund after she disclosed that she was suffering from the rapes.

“Plaintiff again was not informed of any of her rights to academic assistance, she was not given a referral to the (Office of Institutional Equity) nor was any inquiry made as to any assistance she might require upon return to the university the following semester,” the suit says.

The victim returned to classes in January 2016 and sought treatment on campus but did not feel comfortable with the program or therapist and sought treatment with a private clinician, according to the complaint. She has since been prescribed medications for depression, anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia, the suit says.

“Plaintiff changed her major,” the suit says, “as her dream of becoming a sports journalist had been destroyed.”