EMU denies claims in lawsuit that it failed students in sexual assault cases

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Eastern Michigan University on Thursday denied the claims of 23 women and a man that it failed to protect them following complaints of sexual assault on or near campus years ago, officials said in their response to a lawsuit. 

The Board of Regents filed its response in U.S. District Court in Detroit, saying the univeristy could have provided more help if the students had either reported the sexual assaults or participated in proceedings against the alleged assailants. 

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.

The plaintiffs "did not provide the University any opportunity to respond or to help," it said in its filing.  

"Each and every allegation in the Amended Complaint is denied except where explicitly admitted herein," the response said, before offering detailed rebuttals to the claims in the students' lawsuit.

The suit initially was filed in March and then consolidated to include other cases, most recently in September when four women and one man joined, which brought the total number of plaintiffs to 24. 

The plaintiffs claimed that between 2014 and 2020 the university "turned a blind eye to the individuals who made credible reports of sexual assaults, and — even worse — they ignored the fact that many of these reports identified a cadre of serial rapists."

The lawsuit names the EMU Board of Regents as well as several officials who were accused of ignoring or mishandling assault cases, including former Title IX coordinator Melody Werner, EMU police Chief Robert Heighes and retired deputy police Chief Daniel Karrick. Also named are the national office and local chapter of Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity.

The plaintiffs said EMU officials were "aware and tacitly approved of the campus rape culture by purposefully disregarding reports of rape, misleading rape victims and discouraging them from reporting their assaults to Title IX officials or law enforcement." 

In its response, the university said it takes "every report of sexual assault seriously" and adjudicates them "based on the participation and information contributed by survivors." The university claims the students either did not come forward at the time or did not cooperate with the university when they did, adding it did not pressure them into doing so. 

"Just as the University takes every report of sexual assault seriously, it also takes seriously the wishes and rights of survivors who may not want to participate in an investigation or adjudication that they feel may retraumatize them, or for any other reason."

Greek life has been at the center of the accusations, with the most recent suit in September following an alleged sexual assault of a young woman on and off campus following a fraternity party where alcohol was served. 

The plaintiffs claim many of the sexual assaults in question took place at fraternity houses or at fraternity- and university-sanctioned events nearby, and that EMU officials failed to report the sexual assaults. 

The university said Thursday the students' descriptions of sexual assault were "heart-wrenching," but refuted claims that it could have done more to address them since it "can only act when someone tells it something is wrong. Most of the Plaintiffs never did." 

It also denied any wrongdoing on the part of officials, including Werner, whom students claim gave "special accommodations" to alleged assailants and ignored the university's Title IX provision mandating employees and volunteers to report incidents of sexual assaults to proper authorities.

This mandate was enacted, in part, for the purpose of preventing sexual assaults, the university said. 

The university maintained that it acted reasonably and in good faith whenever an incident was brought to its attention, and pointed out that at least one or more of the plaintiffs' claims were barred by the statute of limitations and at least one of the plaintiffs was not at any point an EMU student. 

It also said that many of the named defendants in the plaintiffs' lawsuit deserved governmental immunity because their actions were undertaken in good faith while they were employed by the university within the scope of their authority.