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University of Michigan drops sexual assault ruling against former student

The University of Michigan Union
Wikimedia Commons
University of Michigan student union

The University of Michigan has agreed to erase the findings of a sexual assault investigation against Drew Sterrett, a former student. In exchange, Sterrett will drop a lawsuit he filed against the university.

Sterrett’s case has made him kind of a poster boy for critics who feeluniversities are overcorrecting on college rape, with a lawsuitthat details all kinds of alleged flaws in the school’s investigation process – like failing to include evidence from a roommate who was present while the sexual incident occurred.  

The university found Sterrett guilty of sexual assault in 2012.

But then Sterrett sued, saying the University of Michigan’s disciplinary process deprived him of his right to due process.

Slate and other national media have written about the case.

Now U-M and Sterrett have settled, with the university agreeing to wipe his transcript clean of any disciplinary action, and if any "third party" asks about Sterrett, Michigan has to say that he has no violations of the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy.

In exchange, Sterrett is dropping his lawsuit against the school, and has agreed not to re-apply to the University of Michigan.

Sterrett’s lawsuit: a false accusation and a flawed investigation 

According to his lawsuit, Drew Sterrett was a freshman engineering student who had consensual sex with a female friend in his dorm room in the early morning hours of March 17, 2012.

Sterrett’s roommate, who’s identified in the suit as Z.L., was trying to sleep in the upper bunk while Sterrett and the young woman were on the lower bunk.

Z.L. sent Sterrett a Facebook message at 3 a.m. from the upper bunk, according to the lawsuit:

“Dude, you and [Complainant] are being abnoxtiously [sic] loud and inconsiderate, so expect to pay back in full tomorrow. I only don’t say anything now so I don’t embarrass you all, but I’m rightfully pissed. Yours Truly.”

The young woman told Sterrett she didn’t want their friends to know they’d had sex, according to the suit.

That morning, the complainant texted Sterrett: “You actually can’t tell anyone,” and Sterrett texted back “I won’t.”

But then in August, Sterrett got a notice from the University of Michigan that he needed to make himself available for a Skype interview with administrators. At no point during the interview did investigators tell him he was facing a sexual misconduct complaint, according to the lawsuit.

And when Sterrett asked administrators if he should get a lawyer, they told him the university would make a note if he stopped the interview to seek legal counsel.

As the lawsuit describes it, what followed was a flawed, incomplete investigation that left out evidence and witness testimony – even after Sterrett began getting written affidavits from friends and witnesses on his own behalf and submitting them to the university.

That includes testimony from the complainant’s roommate that the complainant’s mother found her diary over the summer, which detailed her “romantic encounters,” and that the complainant’s mother then called this roommate several times.  

“It is my belief, based on my personal observations,” the complainaint’s roommate writes in this affidavit, “that it is possible [Complainant] manufactured a story about a sexual assault in response to the conflict [Complainant] described occurring between her and her mother during the summer of 2012.”

The lawsuit claims University of Michigan investigators and administrators deprived Sterrett of his right to due process throughout the investigation and appeals process, and when they suspended him from school for violating the sexual misconduct policy – a finding that went on his disciplinary record.

Now, Sterrett gets “fresh start.” But the accuser has life “turned upside down.”

“This means everything,” Sterrett’s attorney, Deborah Gordon said. “We are just extremely gratified that this has been resolved in this manner, and that his record is going to be made right.

“I mean think about it: if you’re a young man and you’re accused of something like this and it’s on your disciplinary record, it’s always going to be there. On a job interview, on an application to go to another school – it’s part of your life’s story and history, never to end. But now we’re hoping Drew will have a fresh start and will be able to put this behind him finally.”

But the accuser herself has harsh words for the University of Michigan.

“I caution all University of Michigan students and their parents to avoid reporting sexual violence or using the university’s Title IX process at all costs,” she writes in a statement issued by her attorney, Douglas Fierberg.

“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.

“Worst of all, I have come to believe they do not care about individual students seeking help and are more concerned with producing the paperwork which demonstrates compliance with U.S. Department of Education mandates. With the multiple efforts and initiatives the university has undertaken and administrators have espoused, the biggest threat on campus has now become the Title IX Sexual Assault Policy as implemented by the university.”

As for the university itself, spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald issued the following statement:

“We firmly believe that accessing resources for information and support is a vitally important first step for anyone who has experienced sexual misconduct. 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.”

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