Former UH students sue school over sex assault investigation By Benjamin Wermund
Two former University of Houston students. expelled in connection with an alleged sexual assault on campus, are suing the school and two administrators, claiming they were denied due process in the investigation and administrative hearings.
The lawsuit calls into question the pressure universities face to crack down on campus sexual assault. The plaintiffs claim they were kept in the dark about the investigation and given little chance to defend themselves.
In a statement, university officials said they are "committed to the enforcement of Title IX, the protections of due process and other legal rights of the parties involved," but are prohibited from further comment under the provisions of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Such pushback has become more common as universities have worked more to crack down on sexual violence on campus. The complaints are a "natural" part of a necessary evolution on college campuses, which have long been rife with underreported and often ignored cases of rape and sexual assault, said John Foubert, a national expert on campus sexual assault.
Multiple studies have shown that 5 percent of college women are victims of rape or attempted rape every year.
"What's unfair is there has been rape on college campuses for hundreds of years and nothing has been done about it," said Foubert, a professor at Oklahoma State University and founder of the nonprofit One in Four, which aims to fight sexual violence on college campuses.
Foubert called the lawsuit a "Hail Mary" pass that includes misunderstandings of sexual assault and of the nature of conduct processes at universities.
According to the lawsuit, Ryan McConnell, a former UH student, went drinking at the Den, a campus bar, on Nov. 19, 2011. While there, he met a female student, and the two ended up kissing, then going back to McConnell's room at the Calhoun Lofts together. There the two, heavily intoxicated, according to the lawsuit, had sex and fell asleep naked on the floor.
McConnell's girlfriend, Natalie Plummer, came home to find the two on the floor. Plummer made a video recording of the two "because she was mad that McConnell was cheating on her and wanted to be able to confront him about his behavior later," the lawsuit said.
Plummer led the female student into the hallway and to the elevator, where she recorded her again, according to the lawsuit. The female student was found naked in the elevator by other students and UH police were called.
According to the lawsuit, UH police, along with the prosecutor, determined there was insufficient evidence that any criminal conduct occurred, in part because "the Female UH Student 'has no memory' of the incident."
Plummer posted a photo of the incident on Facebook and later deleted it, and also shared the two videos with a friend. The videos later ended up in the hands of the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
Three months later, the student filed a complaint with the university against McConnell, saying she believed she was a victim of sexual assault. On March 12, 2012, Richard Baker, a UH assistant vice chancellor and vice president, sent McConnell a letter notifying him that the university was opening an investigation. According to the lawsuit, Baker did not let McConnell know he was the target, but rather said he had "been identified as someone who may have information pertinent to the investigation."
On Sept. 30, Baker sent McConnell and Plummer a letter saying Baker's office would conduct an investigation, with findings based on "a preponderance of the evidence."
McConnell and Plummer submitted written defenses, and Plummer and her attorney met with Baker on Nov. 8. The lawsuit alleges that Baker made several attempts to exclude the attorney from the interview. The lawsuit also claims that Baker asked about evidence that had not previously been provided to McConnell or Plummer, despite numerous requests from their attorneys.
In February, Baker submitted his findings to the dean of students, who concluded that the video "appeared to capture Mr. McConnell physically touching [the Female UH Student] in a sexual manner and, his girlfriend, Natalie Plummer, striking her," according to the lawsuit, which disputes those interpretations. The report also concluded that McConnell and Plummer "took abusive sexual advantage" of the student by taking a photograph and the two videos and had created an intimidating or hostile environment for her by "preserving then destroying" and "sharing" the video from the dorm room.
McConnell and Plummer had appeal hearings in March and April, but they claim in the lawsuit that they were denied due process in them. They weren't allowed to cross examine witnesses or to call witnesses of their own, the suit states.
Baker relied upon evidence neither student had seen before, the lawsuit alleges.
On Sept. 24, the two were informed that Richard Walker, the dean of students, agreed with Baker's findings and that they were expelled.
They are now suing UH and Baker and Walker, claiming, in part, that their constitutional rights to due process were violated.