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Lawsuit alleges U of M suspended innocent student for sexual assault

University of Michigan near Rackham and Michigan League
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Students walk on the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus (file photo)

A University of Michigan student is suing the school over a sexual assault case, but this time, the student says the school took its investigation too far.

Drew Sterrett was a rising sophomore the summer of 2012, when he was accused of sexual assault.

He says the school suspended him until 2016, at least, without ever giving him a fair shot at defending himself.

There's no indication that there was ever a criminal complaint or investigation.

Rather, the University of Michigan’s investigators trampled on Sterrett’s constitutional rights to both due process and free speech, says his lawyer, civil rights and employment law attorney Deborah Gordon.

Investigators trampled on Sterrett's constitutional rights to both due process and free speech, according to his lawyer.

The University of Michigan released this statement to Michigan Radio:

“The University is reviewing the complaints and plans to defend them vigorously. What we can say now is that our student sexual misconduct policy and practices meet or exceed due-process requirements.”

The story according to Drew Sterrett 

Here’s a summary of what the lawsuit alleges.

Again, the University of Michigan isn’t commenting on any of the specifics.

Sterrett started as a freshman in the School of Engineering in 2011.

He lived in a residence hall with a group of students who all participated in the same research program.

In March of 2012, Sterrett and a female student from that dorm had sex in his room.

The lawsuit says they had “made out” before this, and that on the night in question, the female student asked Sterrett to put on a condom, which he did.

Sterrett’s suit also claims that his roommate, identified only as “Z.L.,” was on the top bunk and woke up during their encounter, and that the female student knew he was there.

Sterrett also says that his roommate sent him a Facebook message during this encounter, around 3:00 a.m., complaining about the noise.

The lawsuit says it reads:

“Dude, you and (female student) are being abnoxtiously (sic) loud and inconsiderate, so expect full payback tomorrow. I only don’t say anything now so I don’t embarrass you all, but I’m rightfully pissed. Yours truly.”

"Dude, you and (female student) are being abnoxtiously (sic) loud and inconsiderate, so expect full payback tomorrow. I only don't say anything now so I don't embarrass you all, but I'm rightfully pissed. Yours truly."

In August, the female student went to the school with a complaint against Sterrett.

His lawyer says Sterrett first learned that there was a complaint against him during summer break, the day he got a Skype call from employees from the Office of Student Conflict Resolution (OSCR).

Sterrett claims he asked them if he should get a lawyer and postpone the call, but the lawsuit claims he was then told that “if he put off the interview, that fact would  be reported to the University, that (the school’s) investigation would continue without his input, and that in any event decisions would be made in the next several days.”

The lawsuit goes on to make the following allegations against the University of Michigan:

Sterrett was allegedly told that if he put off the interview to talk with a lawyer, "that fact would be reported to the University, that [the school's] investigation would continue without his input."

1) That Sterrett was never given notice of the charges against him, in part because the female student never filed a written complaint against him;

2) That this made it impossible for Sterrett to “marshal evidence to fully defend himself … (and) exculpatory evidence was left unearthed for months, until after” the school made its decision;

3) That when the decision was made, Sterrett appealed, and gathered witness testimonies in a sworn affidavit that the school then ignored;

4) Those testimonies, provided by Sterrett to the school in the form of sworn affidavits, may have provided a possible motive for why the female student who filed a complaint against Sterrett would bring a false complaint to the school.

Namely, that her mother had found her diary detailing her "romantic" encounters, and that her mother was upset enough about those contents to call her daughter's roommate to accuse of her "living dangerously" and warning that she would be a "bad friend" is she did not "stick up" for the female student. 

Sterrett's attorney, Deborah Gordon, says she believes this is a case of a school going too far in its efforts to crack down on campus assaults.

The federal government has “decided to make the universities accountable, I guess,” says Gordon.

“And the University of Michigan picked up this ball and ran with it, and ran right outside the constitution with it. They’re now all about, 'We’ve gotta show that we’re doing our bit, we’re getting these guys!' That’s the mentality I see.” 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.