Questions and Answers: Title IX Investigation

Protecting students is critical to the University’s educational mission. Our staff in law enforcement, Title IX, student affairs, and elsewhere work every day to try to provide a safe environment for our students to learn.

The University stands with all survivors of sexual assault and is committed to supporting them. Every student should feel comfortable that they are safe on campus.

We understand that serious questions are being raised about the University’s handling of sexual assault cases dating back to the time period of 2015-2018. We are deeply concerned about the allegations and are committed to an ongoing and thorough review of our practices, policies and actions that were in place at the time of the assaults in question.

The survivors who have come forward are showing incredible bravery in choosing to tell their stories, not only to further the criminal prosecutions of the perpetrators, but also because they believe the University let them down. Although the university did not know about them at the time, we believe the survivors' stories of assault, and are sickened to think that these events could have transpired on or around our campus community.

As President Smith stated in his message to campus on Wednesday, March 24, "There is no place for sexual violence in our campus community and we will always take swift action to stop it. An important part of that commitment is communicating with students, faculty, staff and the community whenever something like this occurs, as well as providing information about the University’s handling of such cases."

As noted in the University’s initial Sept. 2020 communication, upon learning about these cases, Eastern Michigan engaged the national firm of Cozen O'Connor -- a specialist in Title IX work -- to undertake a thorough, independent external review of our Title IX and surrounding practices during the time period in question. We are committed to knowing if our processes related to these cases were followed by University employees and, if not, why not and what steps should be taken to ensure that our students are protected and supported. We are committed to full transparency in this process. To that end, as indicated last September, the Cozen O’Connor report will be made public when it is finalized, which is expected later this spring.

Eastern Michigan University takes all claims of sexual assault and sexual misconduct seriously and is committed to the thorough investigation of these incidents. Anyone who has information or wishes to report any incident of sexual assault or misconduct is encouraged to contact EMU Police at 734-487-1222 or at [email protected], or file an incident report with the EMU Title IX Officehttps://www.emich.edu/title-nine/index.php.

 

  •  Q. What does the University know about the lawsuit that was filed? Expand dropdown
    A. Thus far, our investigation is showing that our Title IX office did not know of most of these assaults, as the survivors did not come forward to share their stories with the University at the time. That investigation, of course, is proceeding, but at this point -- of the 11 plaintiffs' allegations -- our records reflect that the university received one anonymous Title IX complaint, and one other complaint in which the complainant did not wish to pursue a formal Title IX investigation. In most cases, without the evidence provided by a complainant, a Title IX investigation cannot meaningfully proceed to initiate disciplinary action against a respondent. To date, our research has shown no evidence of the University having acted improperly or carelessly regarding its level of knowledge at the time.
  •  Q. How does the University respond to allegations in the lawsuit that it covered up sexual assaults? Expand dropdown
    A. Any accusation in the lawsuit that the University covered up crimes of sexual assault is false.

    It's important to note that when a complainant first came forward to University Police last summer regarding these cases, the University immediately and proactively contacted the Ypsilanti Police Department, which has investigative jurisdiction because the incidents occurred off campus and in the city of Ypsilanti. The University has actively provided information and supported the Ypsilanti Police investigation into these crimes throughout the fall and into this winter.

  • Q. How does the University respond to statements from some of the survivors that the University should have done more to prevent the sexual assaults? Expand dropdown

    A. These are deeply concerning and challenging issues. To any Eastern Michigan University student who was the victim of sexual assault by another student, we apologize. The University continues to support, fully cooperate and assist with any investigation involving the sexual assault of a student. Moreover, the University supports the harshest possible punishment the legal system deems warranted to any individuals who committed such an assault.

    The University was limited in its knowledge about the assaults in question. Reports that are filed anonymously, or in which the survivor or witness does not wish to pursue and participate in an investigation by providing additional information and details, limits the University’s ability to investigate such matters. While we understand how difficult a process this can be for survivors, a complainant’s participation is usually essential to any formal investigation or academic consequence to the respondent.

    The reason these processes could not proceed at the time was a lack of such actionable information and participation. It is with the utmost empathy for the experiences of the survivors who have come forward now that we express our deepest wish that we could have moved forward then, and our regret that we could not.

    Our review of procedures in general does not reflect that there were any breakdowns in University process when it came to this matter.

  • Q. At any time, did the University ignore information it could have acted upon regarding sexual assaults? Expand dropdown

    A. To date, based on the information that was available to its Title IX office at the time, the University does not believe that any of its staff acted unreasonably, either with respect to any then-existing standard or regulation, or practically, in the continuing care of its students. We do not believe the university failed to reasonably act upon any information that was provided to it.

    EMU records demonstrate, to the contrary, that the Title IX staff worked tirelessly to reach out to survivors and encourage their participation in our processes. It is a survivor's absolute right to choose not to come forward or to participate in an investigation, and the University should and must respect survivors' wishes in that regard.

    It’s important to note that once Eastern received a report from a complainant who wanted to file a formal complaint and for an investigation to proceed, which occurred in June 2020, EMU immediately relayed this first and only formal report regarding these cases to the Ypsilanti Police Department, which has investigative jurisdiction in these cases given their off-campus occurrence.

  • Q. What sort of allegations is the University legally and structurally able to investigate? Expand dropdown

    A. The University can only investigate allegations that are brought to it. The University’s Title IX Office, consistent with federal law, is set up to respond to reports of misconduct. As the University has emphasized in its community-wide training for several years, the very best way for a complainant or witness to obtain support or action against someone accused of misconduct is to provide a detailed report of the matter to the Title IX office and participate in the resulting investigation. 

    While we understand how difficult a process this can be for complainants, for meaningful action to occur, a complainant’s participation is most often essential. 

  • Q. Has Eastern ever commissioned a review of its Title IX policies and procedures, to ensure they adequately protect students? Expand dropdown
     A. Yes. In 2019, an independent audit of EMU's Title IX policies and procedures found the university to be in full compliance with Title IX's regulations then in existence. That review and final report, which can be found at https://www.emich.edu/documents/title-ix-policy-and-process-report-2019.pdf, drew the following conclusions:

    “In sum, my review of Eastern Michigan University’s Title IX compliance office and related policies and procedures reflects that the institution has made a very meaningful commitment to addressing sexual misconduct in its educational community. This commitment is reflected in the University’s highly-trained and highly-competent Title IX Coordinator and Title IX Investigator; in its efforts to provide widespread prevention education and training to the University community; in its detailed student investigation procedures which are fair to both parties; and in the cooperation, respect and support the Title IX office receives from its many campus partners.”

    In addition, in Sept. 2020, the University announced it was hiring the national firm of Cozen O'Connor -- a specialist in Title IX work – to undertake a thorough, independent external review of University Title IX and surrounding practices during the time period in question. The University is committed to knowing if our processes related to the recent cases were appropriately followed by University employees and, if not, why not and what steps should be taken to ensure that our students are protected and supported. 

    We are committed to full transparency in this process. To that end, as indicated last September, the Cozen O’Connor report will be made public when it is finalized, which is expected later this spring.
  • Q. How does the University respond to allegations that former Title IX Coordinator Melody Werner made comments to discourage a student from reporting a sexual assault? Expand dropdown
    A. Melody Werner categorically denies ever saying anything of that nature to any individual reporting a sexual assault. Her career as a Title IX professional is dedicated to exactly the opposite - encouraging survivors to come forward and report what happened to them and to support them in any way possible.
  • Q. Does the University ever discourage reporting of incidents? Expand dropdown

    A. No. The University is emphatic in its support of encouraging complainants to report misconduct and to participate in a resulting investigation.

    Our Title IX Coordinators, both past and present, devote themselves tirelessly every day to reaching out to survivors, to supporting students in a kind and caring way, and to providing them with resources to continue their academic studies successfully. In many cases, they reach out numerous times to students who simply do not feel comfortable proceeding with an investigation. In these cases, the Title IX office must, ultimately, respect those wishes.  

  • Q. Why wasn’t action taken against students cited in anonymous reports? Expand dropdown

    A. Under federal law, the University cannot take action to remove a student from its programs based solely on an anonymous report it receives. 

    Without a witness, the University lacks evidence to reach a conclusion as to whether there has been a policy violation. The University needs to understand not just who is accused of misconduct, but also the when, where, and substance of the events in order to follow a process to determine whether there has been any wrongdoing. 

    When we receive a report that simply includes a “who,” even when coupled with general sketches of timing (i.e., "at night," "in February,"), the University simply does not have enough to go on. 

    The courts have been very clear that in order to take action against an accused student a university has to go through a rigorous evidentiary process. In fact, under current federal law we are not even permitted to move forward with a disciplinary process – including an interview of an accused student – without a signed formal complaint. This is an important distinction.

  • Q. Why didn’t the University expel the student named in the anonymous report regarding sexual assaults? Expand dropdown

    A. The anonymous report, referring to one of the students who is now charged with sexual assault, was not submitted until about eight months after the reported assault it discussed. However, without specific information the University could have used as part of a disciplinary process to suspend or expel a student, different university protocols or procedures would not have changed whether the student remained enrolled at Eastern Michigan.

    As much as demands for immediate and uncompromising action by survivors are understandable, the University simply cannot unilaterally expel a student. The minimum process required to remove a student from a public university is enforced by the courts. In the absence of a person willing to participate in our process, meaningful action to remove a student from our community is simply not possible.

  • Q. What is the University’s reaction to the accusations that an individual named in the anonymous report caused significant harm to others?

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     A. That in the wake of the University’s inability to act this individual may have caused more harm to our community is a source of deep and genuine concern for our staff and entire community.  We must understand any conditions on campus that could have impacted students’ decisions not to come forward to the university with additional information.  That is why we are committed to understanding the entire situation and to continuing to improve all of our processes.

    It is with the utmost sympathy 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.

  • Q. Does the University have an anonymous reporting “system?”

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    A. No. While the university encourages reporting through any means in whatever way students feel comfortable, it does not have a formal “anonymous reporting system.”  On occasion, students do make unsolicited fully anonymous reports of misconduct.

    While the University can and does receive and use such reports to track trends, such reports rarely are able to support a meaningful investigative process that could result in academic consequences for a respondent. Of course, we do not prevent people from sending the university anonymous material; indeed, such reports may ultimately allow the reporting student to feel more comfortable continuing their education while keeping the lines of communication open should they decide to file a report at a later time. It also documents incidents contemporaneously should the reporter wish to pursue an investigation later. 

  • Q. How does the University respond to questions about Eastern’s Greek community and whether more could have been done to educate members about preventing sexual assault and how to report cases?

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    A. We continue to review all of our practices related to Title IX and will do so with the intention of identifying any areas of improvement and improving processes where necessary. It is important to note that the University’s ability to respond to these reports was hampered by the lack of meaningful information about the alleged instances of harassment.

    Then Title IX Coordinator Melody Werner conducted training for all of EMU's Greek organizations in the Fall of 2018, precisely to encourage additional Title IX reporting on a broader scale in the University's Greek community.

  • Q. How does the University respond to comments in an Ypsilanti Police report from a detective that state the University did not investigate these matters properly?

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    A. With respect to the report, which we have not seen, it primarily recounts the subjective opinions and editorial statements of a single YPD detective. The University has an outstanding, long-standing, positive and ongoing collaboration with the Ypsilanti Police, which includes our University police officers regularly patrolling the city beyond our campus and supporting YPD officers in arrests and investigations.

    The quotations referred to in the report are not statements of fact, they are opinions expressed by that detective. In the University's view, they do not evince a full appreciation of the University's then-existing responsibilities and limitations under Title IX, nor the jurisdiction of the University's Department of Public Safety.

  • Q. What about allegations that EMU Police Chief Bob Heighes was made aware years ago of a certain ritual among the Greek community but didn’t pursue an investigation?

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    A. The first time Chief Heighes heard about that ritual was this past summer, in detail relayed to him by an EMU officer, who first heard it from the investigating detective at the Ypsilanti Police Department. This occurred after EMU had relayed the June Title IX report that initiated the investigation by YPD.

  • Q. How does the University encourage the reporting of sexual assault cases and related incidents?

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    A. The university informs the entire campus community regarding the Title IX Office's important work, and its availability to all members of our community. It is critical to the University that every student feels welcome and supported in visiting the Title IX office on campus.

    Eastern Michigan University takes all claims of sexual assault and sexual misconduct seriously and is committed to the thorough investigation of these incidents.

    Anyone who has information or wishes to report any incident of sexual assault or misconduct is encouraged to contact EMU Police at 734-487-1222 or at [email protected], or file an incident report with the EMU Title IX Officehttps://www.emich.edu/title-nine/index.php.