5 more sue EMU in sexual assaults, say school failed them

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Four more women and a man filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Eastern Michigan University, alleging that the university failed them after they said they were sexually assaulted on or near campus and brought the claims to the school's attentionbut officials did nothing.

The lawsuit involves incidents that allegedly happened years ago. But it comes 10 days after multiple people allegedly sexual assaulted a young woman on and off campus following a fraternity party where alcohol was served, according to the suit.

"Recent disturbing events at EMU demonstrate that ... students remain unprotected from a dangerous culture of sexual assault which continues to flourish on campus without any meaningful oversight or intervention on the part of EMU and its officials," the suit said.

Students and others rally against sexual assault in front of the Pease Auditorium at Eastern Michigan University.

"EMU’s only response to this gang rape was to issue a campus-wide alert instructing students to walk with co-workers, be aware of their surroundings and take a seminar on self-awareness and self-defense. Upon information and belief, EMU’s fraternities and sororities are continuing to host autumn events without interruption."

The new claims, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, bring the number of people alleging the university did not protect them after a sexual assault to 24. 

Named in the new lawsuit are the EMU Board of Regents; former Title IX coordinator Melody Werner; EMU police; EMU police Chief Robert Heighes and retired Deputy police Chief Daniel Karrick; and the nationaloffice and local chapter of Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity.

Walter Kraft, EMU spokesman, said the university was unaware of the claims in the five new cases but emphasized in an email that EMU is "very safe" and pointed to the university's 2020 Annual Security Report showing EMU crime data lower than some Michigan universities and similar to its peers.

"The descriptions of these assaults are heart-wrenching," Kraft said. "The University shares in the survivors’ — and the community’s — frustration and anger that any student should experience sexual violence."

"However, contrary to the allegations made in the initial complaint, the University is, and has been, steadfast in its commitment to respond to, and investigate, reports of sexual misconduct. Any accusation that the University covered up crimes of sexual assault is false.

"The University's Title IX office took its responsibilities very seriously and worked diligently in those situations in which it was contacted about a sexual assault, to show compassion, express concern, and actively support survivors, while encouraging them to pursue an investigation if they were interested and willing to do so."

Among the plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit is "Jane Doe 20," who alleged an EMU student, an athlete whom she briefly dated, raped her and videotaped the assault in her campus apartment in 2017.

At the time, the man had been suspended from EMU for a year because he had violated the university's sexual misconduct policy, according to the suit. But his student access pass to dorms on EMU’s campus was not deactivated and he was able to gain entry to her campus apartment building, the suit claims.

After the alleged rape, the suspended EMU student called and texted with her, and "admitted to JANE DOE 20 he had filmed himself strangling her with the belt from behind and showed the video to his friend on the EMU football team."

She filed a Title IX complaint and police report with the school.

"Jane Doe 20" alleged she got nowhere. The EMU police detective to whom she showed the video told her that it appeared she was "moaning" during the assault, according to the lawsuit. The director of the Title IX office decided the evidence that the woman provided was "inconclusive." 

The lawsuit said "Jane Doe 21" met a couple at EMU and went out with them and another couple to night clubs in Ann Arbor in October 2019. She drank a lot and at one point could not stand. The couple asked her if she wanted to have sex with them and she agreed, but thought they meant another time "due to the fact she could not walk without having help, that they had been drunk and would laugh in the morning about the conversation," the suit said.

But the couple took her home and performed sexual acts on her as she went in and out of consciousness, according to the suit. When the man penetrated her, "she was incapacitated unable to move, speak, stay awake, or keep her eyes open during the rape."

Six months later, "Jane Doe 21" emailed Werner to file a Title IX complaint. She told her that she had been unable to speak during the alleged rape and lost consciousness several times.

Werner allegedly asked her several times: "Are you sure you were incapacitated?"

Werner asked for the names of the two alleged assailants and whether they were EMU students. "Jane Doe 21" said she wasn't sure if the man attended the university. Werner allegedly said, "Then I won’t put his name down. If he’s not a student and not around anymore, reporting his name isn’t important,” according to the suit.

"Werner asked JANE DOE 21 if she wanted a trial or investigation but never explained what either entailed or if she could remain anonymous," the suit said. "Werner told Jane Doe 21 'you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.'"

Werner also told JANE DOE 21 she could talk to her university employer and have them apologize for mistreating her after they learned about the alleged rape, "but that was the most Werner could offer," the suit said.

Werner could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

But Werner was not the only person in EMU's Title IX officer who failed students seeking help after an alleged sexually assault, according to the lawsuit.

"Jane Doe 22" alleges she was sexually assaulted in the bedroom of an Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity member in November 2018 after consenting to a sexual encounter. 

"Jane Doe 22" filed a report with the Ypsilanti Police Department a few weeks after the alleged incident. The fraternity brother gave a written statement to the police and lied about what happened, according to the suit. She was never contacted by police after the initial report, the suit says.

"Jane Doe 22" emailed EMU's Title IX office in December 2018 and had a meeting in January 2019 with Werner, telling her about the alleged sexual assault. Werner sent the woman an email but she did not respond.

"Jane Doe 22" reached out to Werner again in September 2018 after a panic attack after running into the alleged rapist on campus in September 2019. She asked for a formal investigation and help with withdrawing from winter 2019 semester classes.

Anika Awai-Williams, EMU's current TItle IX coordinator, took over for Werner, and "continuously tried to dissuade JANE DOE 21 from moving forward," according to the suit. Awai-Williams also allegedly suggested that the fraternity brother would not face repercussions and any appeal would be devastating to "Jane Doe 22." 

"At the end of the investigation, in the final report, Anika Awai-Williams suggested to the panel that Jane Doe 22 may have been lying about her sexual assault," the lawsuit says. "Anika Awai-Williams also suggested in the final report that Jane Doe 22 may have filed a Title IX complaint in retaliation for Ypsilanti Police Department failing to pursue charges against (the fraternity member)."

"To no one’s surprise, the panel found (the fraternity brother) not responsible," the suit says. "Jane Doe 22 felt defeated by the entire Title IX process and ultimately elected not to appeal the panel’s decision."

Awai-Williams could not be reached for comment.

Most of the accusers in the previously filed cases alleged that the sexual assaults occurred inside or near EMU fraternity houses but EMU failed to help them afterward with law enforcement or in the Title IX process. In some of the cases, the women allege that complaints were handled in a way that benefited the men accused of rape rather than the women who reported assaults.

"For at least seven years, EMU has purposely failed to investigate credible reports of sexual assault, aggressively discouraged victims from filing complaints, and misled victims into believing that their assaults were isolated incidents instead of acts perpetrated by repeat offenders," the suit said.

The new allegations add to two lawsuits filed against EMU in March and late May, alleging a series of failures by the university.

The majority of the claims are linked to Greek Life, including incidents at the Delta Tau Delta and Theta Chi fraternity houses between about 2015 and 2020. Delta Tau Delta will be participating in mediation this fall, court documents show.

The latest lawsuit includes a May 14 affidavit from fraternity executive board member Devin Hammond, who testified there was a lack of investigation and guidance by Werner after she was alerted to a sexual assault by a fellow fraternity member in the fall 2018.

“In November of 2018, I learned that the female student described above, reported her rape to the EMU Title IX Department and Melody Werner,” Hammond said in the affidavit. “At no time did Melody Werner contact anyone from the Board to inquire about the party or details of the allegations.”

"Likewise, neither the EMU Title IX Department nor Melody Werner provided any information to assist the DTD Executive Board with handling allegations of (the) rape.”

The Delta Tau Delta executive board was not provided with relevant information to help in decision-making regarding the alleged rapist so he had no restrictions and was observed engaging in a number of activities following the alleged October 2018 sexual assault, according to the suit. Among the things he was allowed to do included inviting women to the fraternity house and into his bedroom, and supplying minors with alcohol, according to the suit.

“In late 2018 or early 2019, I learned that (the fraternity brother) had raped another female student in November of 2018," according to Hammond's affidavit included in the suit.

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The consolidated case names the same defendants as most of those in the new lawsuit except former EMU Greek Life coordinator Kyle Martin. The previously filed suits also name the local and national chapters of  Delta Tau Delta, Alpha Sigma Phi and Theta Chi fraternities, and Sigma Kappa sorority.

"All of these sexual assaults would have been prevented had Defendants fulfilled its duties to protect Plaintiffs," said the consolidated case filed Wednesday.

In May, EMU responded to the first lawsuit of 11 plaintiffs, saying that victims could not blame the university because the school worked to help the students but couldn't advance when they declined to report the assaults or join investigations.

“Plaintiffs simply cannot place blame on the University for not responding to information it did not have; the University cannot respond to instances of assault it does not know about. Nor can — or would — the University try to dissuade a survivor from moving forward or force a survivor to participate in investigations or proceedings against their assailants.”

A week later, eight more victims filed another lawsuit.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com