Content warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault and rape.
In a 166-page Title IX lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday, recent MSU Office of Institutional Equity Director Melody Werner is a defendant in a case alleging Eastern Michigan University covered up several instances of sexual assault and rape.
Werner joined MSU as OIE director in November 2019 after serving as EMU's Title IX coordinator since 2015. In this role, Werner oversaw all investigations taking place under the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct and Anti-Discrimination Policies. Werner's connection to MSU was first identified by The Detroit News.
"We have been made aware of the pending litigation through media reports and calls to our office," MSU Deputy Spokesperson Dan Olsen said via email. "Melody is currently working on assignment in support of strategic operations initiatives within the Office for Civil Rights through June 1, 2021. She hasn’t been OIE director since October 2020."
The lawsuit said Werner told authorities, "she is not an investigator," that she did not have training in interviewing sexual assault survivors. According to Werner, she was "just a coordinator" and she would refer reported sexual assault cases to Title IX investigators. Nevertheless, she was the gatekeeper for their complaints.
In total, 11 women allege their reports of sexual assault were actively discouraged and ignored by the university, Werner and the Eastern Michigan University Police Department. According to the lawsuit, Werner did not record the statements of students Thomas Hernandez and D'Angelo McWilliams, who were accused of gang-raping a student.
"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," EMU Spokesperson Geoff Larcom said in a statement to The State News sent Thursday afternoon.
Werner also told one student's roommate "You can't report the assault. It must be the victim," which is against Title IX policy as Werner describes it in a freshman orientation presentation available on YouTube, according to the lawsuit.
In speaking to the student directly, Werner said, "There is no point in reporting it. You’re going to have to go through all of this to report it. They’re in a fraternity. Greek community is going to back them up.”
After the student told Werner about the sexual assault, she was told the office would not investigate because it occurred off campus, and she would have to contact Ypsilanti Police Department herself.
"(YPD) is not gonna want to deal with this," Werner said to the student, according to the lawsuit. "They are not gonna believe you. They’re gonna question everybody at the fraternity and the fraternity is gonna back these guys up."
In a campus message Wednesday, EMU President James Smith, discussed an effort to be transparent and review their actions, including an ongoing audit of Title IX they launched. The lawsuit was not discussed.
"Let me be clear: no student should suffer a sexual assault while part of our community," Smith said. "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."
Other defendants mentioned in the lawsuit include Eastern Michigan University's Board of Regents, EMUPD, Chief of Police Robert Heighes and Deputy Chief Daniel Karrick, as well as the EMU and national Alpha Sigma Phi and Delta Tau Delta fraternities.
Editor's note: This article was updated March 25 to include a statement on behalf of Werner
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