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How a Michigan college student beat a sexual assault allegation

The University of Michigan’s law school library. (iStock)
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For Drew Sterrett, a freshman at the University of Michigan, the evening of March 16, 2012, didn’t start out all that unusual. A female friend, known in court documents as “CB,” from his dorm asked to stay in his room — her roommate had visitors. Sterrett assumed she would sleep on the floor. Instead, she ended up sleeping in his bed, and the two young students had sex.

Sterrett’s roommate, trying to sleep in the upper bunk, even sent Sterrett a scolding Facebook message. “Dude, you and [CB] are being abnoxtiously [sic] loud and inconsiderate, so expect to pay back in full tomorrow,” he wrote.

And that appeared to be that. The end of the school year came — Sterrett and CB went their separate ways. This was, after all, college.

But, in August of that year, Sterrett was surprised to learn that he was at the center of a university investigation into alleged sexual misconduct. CB claimed she had not consented to the encounter, and the university, after an investigation, agreed.

“I wrote in the journal it was the worst night of my life,” the alleged victim said in a deposition, as the Detroit Free Press reported. “I did not specify his name. I couldn’t write his name.”

Sterrett was suspended until 2016 — but filed a federal lawsuit against the public university last year. He was innocent, he claimed, and sought to clear his name. And now, Sterrett and Michigan have entered into a settlement agreement that does just that.

“It really was emotionally difficult, debilitating and crushing at times,” Sterrett told Slate’s Emily Yoffe in an e-mail, about his three-year battle against the sexual assault allegation. He said he was now filled with “a sense of excitement and joy.”

In a settlement agreement, the University of Michigan “will vacate” its conclusions about Sterrett’s alleged sexual misconduct, “rendering those findings null and void.” The university also agreed that it will not include references to the disciplinary action in Sterrett’s transcript, and that it will not investigate the case further. Sterrett, in turn, agreed not to reapply to the university.

“The whole goal was to let Drew go on with his life,” Deborah Gordon, Sterrett’s attorney, told Slate.

Yoffe wrote Sterrett is part of “a very small cohort: He is a male college student who has had a sexual assault finding against him reversed.”

Sterrett’s alleged victim and her attorneys, meanwhile, decried the settlement — and blamed the school.

“I urge you to be aware: the university process will take far longer than they represent it to take, the university does not follow through on commitments of support they purport to offer, and it does not follow its own mandated procedures when investigating sexual violence on its campus,” CB wrote in a statement. “Worst of all, I have come to believe they do not care about individual students seeking help …”

“The University of Michigan dragged our client through a traumatic, oppressive maze after she reported sexual assault, taking years to resolve her complaint,” CB’s attorneys wrote in a statement. “… Today, the University has surrendered and turned its back on our client, apparently because of its own technical mistakes. Blindsided and betrayed, our client is more damaged from having reported the assault to the University than if she had not come forward at all.”

In a statement, the university, however, defended the way it investigated sexual misconduct.

“We firmly believe that accessing resources for information and support is a vitally important first step for anyone who has experienced sexual misconduct,” the school’s spokesman, Rick Fitzgerald, said, as MLive reported. “Our students have a number of options for seeking support, including strictly confidential resources.The university offers extensive, research-informed educational programs designed to reduce sexual misconduct and increase reporting. We strive to continually improve our processes to improve the experiences and outcomes for students who report sexual misconduct to the university.”

The settlement agreement appeared to turn on a decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan — one that, as per the settlement agreement, will now be vacated. Sterrett had filed suit against 10 university officials. In February, the federal court granted a motion to dismiss Sterrett’s claims against all but one: Heather Cowan, an equal opportunity specialist at the school who first interviewed him about CB’s allegations in August 2012.

When Cowan first approached him, Sterrett said, he had no knowledge of CB’s claim, and only “eventually gleaned that it involved unspecified sexual misconduct allegations.” Sterrett contended in court that this failure to provide adequate notice of the allegation against him and the university’s failure to provide a sufficient hearing violated his constitutional right to due process.  

U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood agreed: “Sterrett’s Complaint sufficiently alleges that he received no notice, verbal or otherwise, prior to the August 6, 2012 [conversation he had with Cowan].” Hood also concluded that Sterrett had sufficiently alleged facts regarding the lack of a “meaningful hearing” prior to issuance of Cowan’s final report and findings about the sexual misconduct allegations against him.    

But, were Hood’s decision to stand, it might be cited by other students accused of sexual assault who feel their due process rights under the Constitution were violated by public university officials. In a similar case in July, for example, a student accused of sexual assault at the University of California at San Diego was treated unfairly by the school, a California trial court judge decided. After the decision, the student’s attorney said universities should never investigate such allegations.

“It shouldn’t be done,” Matthew Haberkorn said. “Absolutely not. And if they’re going to do it, need to bring in trained police to handle the investigations and interviews and need to get prosecutors to represent the university instead of using students and staff.”

[University unfair to student accused of sexual assault, says California judge]

Such a policy change, of course, would run counter to how many schools — and President Obama — have attempted to respond to sexual assault on college campuses. But it’s a change that some feel needs to happen.

“Unfortunately, under the worthy mandate of protecting victims of sexual assault, procedures are being put in place at colleges that presume the guilt of the accused,” Yoffe wrote in Slate last December. “Colleges, encouraged by federal officials, are instituting solutions to sexual violence against women that abrogate the civil rights of men.”