What Eastern Michigan University’s Title IX review found after sex assault cases

Eastern Michigan University is hailing a review of its Title IX office, written by a firm it hired, as proof it acted appropriately in three men’s sex assault cases.

Cozen O’Connor, the firm hired by the school to review the cases in 2020, found deficiencies in the school’s Title IX files in the cases, with key communications and notes missing, according to a copy of the report. It also concluded that the school received the reports on the men anonymously or through individuals who didn’t wish to move forward with Title IX, which the school has previously said.

Twenty-five people were interviewed but none of the women at the center of the reported sexual assaults, who are also among those involved in federal lawsuits against the school, agreed to speak to Cozen O'Connor, according to the report. The federal lawsuits and Free Press reporting have indicated concern with the handling of that anonymous complaint and raised accusations that one woman was discouraged by Title IX from reporting her assault, which the school has denied.

The firm's scope was on whether university officials received notice of sexual or gender-based issues with the three men. It "was not asked to make findings in this investigation, but rather to prepare a detailed and comprehensive report where the facts would speak for themselves," according to the report.

More: Eastern Michigan says it couldn’t act on Title IX report noting multiple victims

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More: Eastern Michigan says emails show they didn't mistreat women reporting sex assaults

Speaking during a question-and-answer segment of a virtual news conference shortly after the school released the report, Eastern Michigan University President James Smith once again disavowed any suggestion in the lawsuits the school faces that there was a cover-up in the cases. He said Cozen O'Connor would have said if there was one.

"We're heartened to learn that the university appears to have acted appropriately within its level of knowledge with regard to these complaints," he said during the conference. "However, it's clear that we have work to do with regard to creating comprehensive records of our investigations or case files, as well as increasing campuswide training and education regarding Title IX."

A lawyer for the 23 women and one man in the federal lawsuits could not immediately be reached for comment Friday afternoon, following the school's release of the report and the news conference. The lawsuits allege the school turned a blind eye to sexual assaults and left them vulnerable to assaults they endured. The school has denied this, but is in mediation in the legal matter.

The three former students at the center of the Cozen O'Connor investigation attended the school between 2015 and 2019, were all associated with fraternities, and have since been criminally charged and accused of assaults on multiple women during their time at the school.

A Free Press investigation found the school did not act after it received a Title IX report that a then-student, Dustyn Durbin, now 25, of Frenchtown Township, had other victims. The school has said it could not act because the report was anonymous. Durbin is now charged with assaults on nine women.

More: Eastern Michigan women reported sex assaults by the same man. Now they lean on each other.

Additionally, the Free Press found in a case involving an alleged gang rape by two men — Thomas Hernandez, 24, of Lincoln Park, and Washtenaw County Sheriff's Deputy D'Angelo McWillams, 26, of Canton — a woman told Ypsilanti police she was discouraged by the Title IX office from reporting her case. The school has also denied this.

The report revealed details including:

  • Based on its information, Cozen O'Connor said the school did not have other notice of reported sex assaults beyond the anonymous case and cases in which individuals did not wish to proceed with Title IX.

  • Cozen O'Connor found that the office did not "consistently include all relevant documentation, including key communications with parties, meeting notes, and the rationale for key case-related decisions such as whether to honor a complainant’s request not to proceed with an investigation." It noted this limited the picture of the school's response. The school says it has started to work on its record-keeping.

  • An EMU Title IX Coordinator told Cozen O’Connor she only pursued an investigation if the complainant consented. The school has also previously told the Free Press it lacks evidence to reach a Title IX conclusion without a witness. The report does mention that there are certain instances where schools can take action without the complainant's consent, including if “circumstances suggested there was an increased risk of the respondent committing additional acts of sexual violence.”

  • The Title IX office had a woman request to close out a complaint on Hernandez the day before meeting with the woman in the gang rape. Cozen O'Connor noted: "The files do not reflect that the Title IX Coordinator evaluated whether the reports relating to Student A and Jane Doe 1 indicated a pattern of conduct involving Hernandez, in light of the two separate complaints to the Title IX Office about Hernandez within one month." The closed-out case had been related to reported stares by Hernandez and "sexually charged" comments like "hey baby girl."

The news conference also revealed:

  • The school is interested in a reporting system that allows anonymous reportees to continue to message with Title IX staff after their initial report, Smith said.

  • The school has committed to external reviews every three years, Smith said, and has already begun the next one.

For its report, Cozen O'Connor interviewed the former and current Title IX coordinator, the former Greek Life coordinator, former and current members of the Eastern Michigan University Police Department, current faculty members, a former EMU student, and employees of local law enforcement agencies.

The number of known former students criminally charged with sex assaults has grown since the firm review began in 2020.

The school has already implemented or begun work on numerous new programs to address sexual assault concerns. These include required annual Title IX training for students, expansion of a bystander training program, a survivors handbook and training modules for employees about trauma-informed approaches to support survivors.

Darcie Moran is a breaking news reporter and podcaster for the Detroit Free Press. She's served as an investigative reporter and covered justice issues, crime, protests, wildfires and government affairs. Contact Moran: dmoran@freepress.com. Twitter: @darciegmoran.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: What Eastern Michigan Title IX review found after sex assault cases