Eastern Michigan fraternities at center of sex assault cases under review

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Ypsilanti — Amid pressure to ban two Greek life organizations, Eastern Michigan University began a review this week of the two fraternities that will evaluate their "future status on our campus."

Delta Tau Delta and Alpha Sigma Phi and the school are facing lawsuits from two dozen Jane and John Does alleging that they were sexually assaulted in incidents dating back to 2016, and 19 of those reported assaults have connections to the two fraternities, according to the lawsuits.

Eastern Michigan University students during a demonstration and march through campus on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, demanding the suspension or removal of two fraternities in light of sexual assaults on and near campus in Ypsilanti.

Students have pressured university officials since March to ban the Greek life organizations. On Thursday, more than 300 students marched through the campus and demanded the administration suspend Delta Tau Delta and Alpha Sigma Phi.

"This is a fight for justice, and a fight for a safe campus for everyone," said EMU freshman Abbi Francis, who planned the protest after forming a new student group Sexual Assault and Rape Awareness, or SARA.

Three sexual assaults have been reported on campus around the beginning of the fall semester, which began Aug. 30. They occurred in a dormitory and on- and off-campus parking lots.

"The university takes this process very seriously and is moving aggressively in its review," EMU spokesman Walter Kraft said in a statement. He added the university review process was formally launched Tuesday but declined to say how long it might take. Kraft answered some questions from The Detroit News but declined a longer interview.

"The university is keenly aware of the recent concerns expressed by some students and others regarding their safety and the university’s handling of cases of sexual assault," President James Smith wrote Thursday in a letter to the EMU community. "I take those concerns with utmost seriousness because any failure to ensure that our students feel safe is inconsistent with our institutional values. No student can learn in an environment where they are unsafe."

Messages left with the fraternities were not returned. No one answered the door this week at the Delta Tau Delta house. People who answered the door at the Alpha Sigma Phi residence declined to comment.

A representative from the national Delta Tau Delta organization said in a statement it would refrain from commenting during legal proceedings.

Danny Miller, senior director of prevention and accountability for Alpha Sigma Phi, in an email did not address questions about what the national organization is doing to address allegations against the EMU chapter.

"Alpha Sigma Phi takes allegations of sexual assault seriously," Miller said in a statement. "Sexual violence is a threat to campus safety and has no place in fraternities or our campus communities.

"All members of Alpha Sigma Phi — including the members of our chapter at Eastern Michigan — are educated about consent, sexual assault prevention, alcohol abuse, hazing and other critical societal concerns through the Responsible Sig program."

Grason Dixon, president of EMU's Interfraternity Council, did not respond to messages left seeking comment.

Eastern Michigan University student Olivia Gajewski, 19, reading and decoding the messages on the "Free Speech Wall" on the campus of Eastern Michigan University on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.

Olivia Gajewski, who pledged Sigma Kappa sorority last year then dropped out when members told her she couldn't talk about the lawsuits or sexual assaults, started a change.org petition this spring demanding that EMU banish the two fraternities.

“It’s really alarming that Eastern isn’t really doing anything about it, sweeping it under the rug,” said Gajewski, an EMU sophomore studying neuroscience and psychology. “These fraternities are still allowed to be on campus. As someone who knows people — friends, family, myself — experiencing some of these things, it hurts.”

Amir Kasham, who manages Tom's Party Store located next door to the Alpha Sigma Phi house and a few houses away from the Theta Chi fraternity house, said current fraternity members should not be punished for the behavior of members of the past.

"At the end of the day, it is a frat, and they are responsible for their members," Kasham said, who added he has watched fraternity brothers walk women home late at night and sees them doing other good things in the community. "People have to be responsible for themselves."

Some of the lawsuits also name Theta Chi fraternity and Sigma Kappa sorority as defendants, although neither organization is under review, Kraft said in a statement. People who answered the door at Theta Chi house and Sigma Kappa declined to comment.

"I know a few people don't spoil a fraternity," said Francis, who commutes to classes from Wixom. "As of right now, those fraternities are a source of people being uncomfortable and being nervous on campus. Honestly, it would just be better to ban these fraternities to prevent anything else from happening."

She added there has been little communication from EMU about the lawsuits or recent assaults so students had to raise awareness during the protest.

Eastern Michigan University students during a demonstration and march through campus on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, demanding the suspension or removal of two fraternities in light of sexual assaults on and near campus in Ypsilanti. "Enough is enough" was written in chalk along the route of the march.

"We need change," said Francis. "It's important they realize we are demanding a safe campus."

Several of the assaults outlined in the lawsuits are tied to three former EMU students.

Dustyn Durbin, a former member of Alpha Sigma Phi, is accused in lawsuits of assaulting nine women and was charged in Washtenaw County with 13 sexual assault charges.

D’Angelo McWilliams, a former EMU student, was placed on unpaid leave from the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office in August 2020 after he was initially charged with three counts of first-degree sexual assault and one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, among other charges.

Those charges stemmed from allegations that McWilliams and roommate Thomas Hernandez in September 2016 raped two women in separate instances at the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house in Ypsilanti where they lived.

Four additional first-degree sexual assault charges were added against McWilliams in August, bringing the total number of charges against him to 12, said Jackson County Prosecutor Jerard Jarzynka, whose office is handling the McWilliams and Hernandez cases. 

Jarzynka declined to say whether the August charges against McWilliams involved different reported victims than the two who had already have accused McWilliams and Hernandez of raping them. 

Hernandez was charged with three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and one count of domestic violence from the 2016 allegations.

Three more assaults reported

Of the three recently reported sexual assaults, one occurred between acquaintances in an EMU dormitory, Sellers Hall, on Sept. 3, Kraft said. 

The other two incidents involved an EMU student who was sexually assaulted in two parking lots on- and off-campus by two different individuals on Aug. 28-29, Kraft said. The incidents prompted EMU police to send an alert sent to campus, asking anyone with information to contact EMU or Ypsilanti police. 

The reported assault in the on-campus parking lot occurred in EMU's Green Lot, located in the northern part of campus, Kraft said. The off-campus incident occurred in a parking lot of the Eagles Nest apartment complex, which is next to the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house. Kraft said the incidents did not involve a member of Delta Tau Delta.

EMU Police Department Chief Matthew Lige attended the demonstration Thursday. He said the investigation is ongoing into the alleged assault and no arrests have been made. 

The reported parking lot assaults were among several described in a lawsuit brought this month brought by four women and a man against the school alleging EMU failed them after they said they were sexually assaulted on or near campus years ago and brought the claims to the school's attention.

According to the lawsuit, multiple people sexually assaulted a young woman in the two parking lot incidents following a fraternity party where alcohol was served.

Eastern Michigan University students Nic Carnegie, 18, and Kyleigh Benton, 18 during a demonstration and march through campus on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, demanding the suspension or removal of two fraternities in light of sexual assaults on or near campus in Ypsilanti.

The Ypsilanti Police Department did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

During Thursday's protest, which ended in front of Welch Hall, many spoke of being sexually assaulted in the past. Sexual assault should not be part of anyone's experience, and it should not be part of going to college, said EMU junior Faith Aeillo.

"Campus (officials) are here to protect us, and they are not going their jobs," Aeillo said.

Others said the rape culture on campus and at fraternities must stop.

Mimi Meissner, a junior from Battle Creek, said it's good officials are investigating the status of the fraternities. But she was skeptical about the outcome.

"They're just doing this to cover themselves," Meissner said. "The school cares more about their reputation than the students."

Kraft, along with several administrators, including Title IX Coordinator Anika Awai-Williams and Lige, attended the protest and spoke toward the end. Kraft told the crowd Smith had another commitment.

"We are here, we are listening, we will continue to do what we can to go forward to support people here," Kraft said. "There are people here who care about you."

In recent years, Michigan fraternities have been reviewed, and in some cases, suspended at other colleges.

The University of Michigan’s Sigma Alpha Nu was suspended in 2015 after a melee at a northern Michigan ski resort and the university asked the national organizations to suspend two other fraternities and two other sororities that were involved.

Central Michigan University pulled its recognition of Phi Sigma Phi in 2019 after numerous reports of sexual assault, alcohol abuse and the death of a member.

It was not clear Thursday what Eastern Michigan's options could be, and Kraft did not offer specifics.

Smith, in his statement, said that EMU is rolling out new initiatives.

"EMU has numerous programs and policies in place designed to prevent sexual assault, support survivors, hold perpetrators accountable, and increase awareness of this important issue," he said. "With the start of a new school year, we are also launching new initiatives to further these goals."

Among the initiatives: 

► New online Title IX training is expected to be unveiled in a month that will be required for all students annually. A new "EMU Survivor’s Handbook" will provide information about how to work with the Title IX Office and how to support victims of sexual assault. A new resource guide is being developed for faculty and staff, addressing how to file a Title IX report and how to communicate with victims. 

► Expansion of the university's bystander-training program to make it available to all students. The program focuses on encouraging bystanders to help others.

► A new program, "Care for Survivors," is being developed for students to help them provide peer-to-peer support to help others through trauma.

Kraft added two training sessions were recently completed for faculty and staff about how to take a trauma-informed approach to support victims. A two-day training on the Clery Act, a federal law requiring colleges and universities to report crime on or near campus, took place over the summer that involved several hundred university administrators.