By Stephanie Shenouda, Summer Managing Editor
Published May 7, 2014
Former student Drew Sterrett filed a lawsuit against the University on April 23 after he was suspended from school following allegations of sexual misconduct. Sterrett, who was a student in the College of Engineering, has taken legal action because he said he was denied due process during the investigation, after a complaint was filed against him by a female friend whom he had sexual relations with.
Sterrett’s attorney Deborah Gordon told The Michigan Daily she finds the University was “completely neglectful” in almost every aspect of their internal investigation, which ultimately left Sterrett “deprived of his educational opportunity.”
Gordon added that the University’s “sloppy” investigation led to a false result and maintains her client’s innocence based on official affidavit statements that Sterrett obtained from witnesses in an attempt to provide evidence to clear his name.
She explained that with all other crimes, from minor in possession to public indecency charges, the accused is allowed a hearing and chance to speak with witnesses as part of their due process rights. These allowances are not offered to those accused of sexual assault, which Gordon said she believes is the result of the administration’s efforts to streamline investigations regarding sexual assaults to “look like they’re making strides towards stamping out sexual assault” on campus.
University Spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham denied allegations of negligence in a statement released to The Michigan Daily.
“The University is reviewing the complaints and plans to defend them vigorously,” she said. “What we can say now is that our student sexual misconduct policy and practices meet or exceed due process requirements.”
The University has 28 days from the time the suit was filed to respond.
Gordon called Sterrett’s case the “ugly other side of sexual assault on campus,” because outside pressure seems to create rush judgments that often lead to wrongful punishments.
She added that the University is put in a hard position with these cases, because they assume a role closer to that of a police officer than an academic institution, which she believes is inappropriate. Gordon said the administrator who initially interviewed Sterrett had a linguistics degree, which she believes isn’t adequate training for conducting an investigation of this magnitude.
Gordon said that Sterrett’s only opportunity to plead his innocence was in a phone interview shortly after the complaint was filed, five months after the act in question actually took place. She emphasized that no one from the University ever met Sterrett in person, which she viewed as one of the many faults of the investigation.
According to the details of the lawsuit, Sterrett and the female friend who eventually filed the complaint went out “socializing” and had sexual relations in his dorm room, where she stayed the entire night. She filed the complaint with the University about five months later but never contacted the police. Sterrett was told if he postponed the interview to consult a lawyer, the investigation would continue without him – which Gordon also cited as an infringement of legal rights.
Gordon added that the proceedings will be a long road, and that the next step is the “discovery phase,” where she will perform depositions on the University officials involved in Sterrett’s case. She anticipates it will be many months before a court date is set.
Sterrett is currently unable to attend the University unless he admits to committing the sexual assault, a confession that Gordon said is just “not possible” to make. She added that he’s had difficulty finding employment or gaining admission at other schools once institutions learn of the allegations against him.
“My heart really goes out to Drew because the University’s reckless actions really turned his life around in an instant,” Gordon said. “He came to (the University) expecting to go to this great school and have all of these great opportunities, and now this unfortunate event will define his college experience.”
Under the University’s recently adopted sexual misconduct policy, officials need only preponderance of evidence to find alleged assailants responsible for sexual misconduct. That policy was enacted after the U.S. Department of Education recommended institutions amend their policies to adopt a lower standard of evidence in cases of sexual misconduct.
Earlier this year, federal officials launched an investigation of the University’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations after receiving a complaints related to the permanent separation of former kicker Brendan Gibbons. In January, the Daily reported Gibbons had been permanently separated from the University after being found responsible for committing sexual misconduct.