DETROIT — Eleven women have sued the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents and two fraternities, saying they covered up and failed to adequately address sexual assaults by several male students, leaving the female students in harm’s way for assaults they endured.
The Title IX lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan, also claims law enforcement is investigating more than 30 rapes at EMU from 2015 to 2020.
The legal action comes after four known former students were arrested in the last year and accused of assaults during their time at the university.
Five of the women now involved in the lawsuit spoke to the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, on the condition of anonymity after they testified against one man — Dustyn Durbin, 24, of Frenchtown Township — at a preliminary examination, but prior to filing the lawsuit.
They were concerned that Durbin was a known predator based on information from other women and were concerned with the university’s overall handling of sexual assault cases, they said.
“Lots of protocols should have been in place for this not to have happened and they weren’t,” said one woman.
Specifically, the women in the lawsuit accuse:
- Former Title IX coordinator Melody Werner of telling one of them, “it’s not even worth reporting” of her assault.
- The university of retaliation by holding up one woman’s transcript for law school “pending litigation” until 2099. A second woman also had such a designation on her transcript.
- Current EMU Police Chief Bob Heighes of receiving knowledge of an assault from a family member in a fraternity.
- An EMU police officer of telling a student “nothing would happen” with prosecution because she reported an assault after two months.
The lawsuit levies accusations against the university’s Board of Regents, the EMU Police Department, Werner, Heighes, EMU Deputy Police Chief Daniel Karrick, and the local and national chapters of the Alpha Sigma Phi and Delta Tau Delta fraternities.
The Ypsilanti Police Department, which handled the four arrests, said in a press release Wednesday that it continues to actively investigate violence against women, including sexual assaults dating back to 2014 and asked that any victims reach out to them. The department said no further information would be given.
EMU President James Smith, in a campus message Wednesday, did not address the lawsuit but discussed an effort to be transparent and review their actions, including an ongoing audit of Title IX they launched.
“Let me be clear: no student should suffer a sexual assault while part of our community,” he said in the message. “Worse, when one occurs and the survivor does not experience the kind of support they need and deserve, the institution must pay attention and strive tirelessly to fix whatever it was that created such an environment.
“Every student should feel comfortable using University services – and particularly our Title IX office – when they have experienced a sexual assault.”
EMU spokesman Geoff Larcom said in an email the university just received a copy of the complaint and directed the Free Press to the president’s statements, but in a subsequent email stated that allegations of a cover-up are false.
Neither Werner, Heighes, nor Karrick, nor the fraternity representatives could be immediately reached for comment.
University Title IX offices stem from a 1972 federal act of the same name, under which sex discrimination, such as sexual harassment, is banned at schools receiving federal funding. Under Title IX, schools are obligated to investigate reports of sexual assault.
Statements from the university as late as last week show the school and the women are thus far at odds over whether there was “actual knowledge” of the assaults in several cases. That term and other language in the lawsuit reflect an attempt to meet the standard of the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has said a student only has a case if a school’s “deliberate indifference” to a harassment report led to more harassment.
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Regarding several cases now in the lawsuit, the university previously told the Free Press that no complainant wanted a formal investigation, and in one case a complaint could not be followed up on because it was submitted anonymously.
Werner also has denied that she suggested a student not report an assault.
The university can only investigate allegations brought to it, anonymous reports rarely support a meaningful Title IX investigation, and the university “emphatically denies” that its Title IX office ever discourages a student from reporting, said EMU Vice President for Communications Walter Kraft in a series of emailed statements last week in response to several Free Press inquiries.
“It is with the utmost empathy for the experiences of the survivors who have come forward now that we express our deepest wishes that we could have moved forward then and our regret that we could not,” he said.
The women, who were not named in the anonymous Jane Doe lawsuit, described sexual assaults they endured involving four male students, only three of whom are known to be among those currently facing criminal charges.
Those men are Durbin, who faces charges involving nine women; Thomas Hernandez, 23, of Lincoln Park; and D’Angelo McWilliams, now 25 of Canton, who is a Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Deputy on unpaid leave.
Hernandez’s attorney, William Amadeo of the McManus & Amadeo law firm in Ann Arbor, said his client “is not guilty of anything” and willing to take a polygraph test to prove it.
“He’s willing to take a polygraph to prove his innocence and in my opinion, this has been a money grab by people making false allegations,” he said. “I completely stand behind Thomas’ innocence and I intend to prove that in court.”
Douglas Gutscher, attorney for McWilliams, declined to comment and an attorney for Durbin could not be reached for comment.
Police reports show McWilliams and Durbin all told police they had consensual sex in their cases.
The women have countered the claims and talked with the Free Press about their long-term physiological harm from their assaults, however.
“In essence, Defendants effectively provided Durbin, Hernandez, McWilliams and (the uncharged fourth accused man) with a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card,” the lawsuit states.
Women had thoughts of suicide, drops in grades, lack of trust in men, withdrawal from education and other mental health struggles in the aftermath, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit ultimately accuses the institutions of violating the women’s rights, including Title IX and civil rights, failure to train and supervise, sex discrimination, and gross negligence, among other charges.
It seeks a judgment in excess of $75,000.
For survivors of sexual assault
RAINN, which stands for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, has a 24-hour crisis line at 800-656-4673 for support, information and referrals.
Follow Darcie Moran onTwitter: @darciegmoran.