Expelled Students Sue University of Houston Over Sexual Assault Investigation

The night of November 19, 2011, Ryan McConnell went to the Den, a pub near the University of Houston campus, for some drinks with friends. There McConnell met a fellow UH student, and, after several drinks, talking led to kissing. The two eventually got so drunk a bartender told them to leave.

McConnell and the woman stumbled back to his place at the Calhoun Lofts, where McConnell insists they had consensual, albeit very drunk, sex and fell asleep naked on the floor.

The woman, however, filed police reports after she woke up the next day at Ben Taub Hospital. The night before, fellow students had discovered her dazed and completely nude in the Calhoun Lofts elevator. There were scratches and bruises on her arms and neck. A university police officer took the woman to Ben Taub, and she was later transported to College Station Medical Center, where a nurse informed her that, based on her injuries and the results of a rape kit, she'd likely been assaulted. She couldn't recall being in McConnell's room; the last thing she remembered was drinking at the Den.

The Harris County Sheriff's Office launched an investigation but charges were never filed, in part because the woman had "no memory" of the incident, according to court records. Still, there was enough evidence -- including videos university officials claim McConnell's girlfriend, Natalie Plummer, shot of the naked woman in McConnell's room and in the elevator that night -- for UH to investigate the incident. Last month, after a lengthy investigation and appeals process, UH officially expelled McConnell and Plummer for violating the school's sexual misconduct policy.

Last week McConnell and Plummer sued the university and two UH officials in federal court, claiming the way the school investigates and handles sexual assault complaints violates the rights of accused students. Attorneys for McConnell and Plummer further claim their clients are victims of a federal crackdown on campus sexual violence that "has gone too far." Their Ohio-based attorneys, Joshua Engel and Michael Allen, recently sued the University of Cincinnati over another student who, while not charged by police, was kicked out of school for sexual misconduct.

(See this New York Post article on that case, which criticizes "feminist activists and leftists" for calling college rape an epidemic and kicks off with this lead: "Ethan Peloe swears he just did what comes naturally to any red-blooded American male university student. He says he had a threesome.")

Engle, Allen, and local attorney Robin Weinburg are among a group of lawyers who claim the federal Department of Education -- by threatening to withhold funding from colleges and universities that don't revise their sexual misconduct policies -- has pushed schools into dangerous territory. UH passed a new sexual misconduct policy in late 2012 as a result of that federal push, the lawsuit alleges, and further revised its policy last year. And the case against UH is just the latest in a recent spat of lawsuits against colleges and universities filed by (mostly) men who say they were denied due process and wrongly expelled in sexual misconduct hearings.

Just last week, a group of 28 current and retired Harvard Law professors raised eyebrows after they ran an op-ed in the Boston Globe expressing their "strong objections" to that school's new sexual misconduct policy. They wrote: "Harvard has adopted procedures for deciding cases of alleged sexual misconduct which lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process, [and] are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused."

According to reports filed with the lawsuit against the University of Houston, the UH student who was found naked in the Calhoun Lofts elevator filed a sexual assault complaint with the university three months after the incident. In March 2012, Richard Baker, a UH assistant vice chancellor and vice president, sent McConnell a letter telling him the university was looking into the complaint. Months later, McConnell and Plummer showed university officials a video of the nude woman being led into the elevator, but not the video of her naked in McConnell's room.

In late August 2013, however, university officials got that second video from the Harris County Sheriff's Office. The discovery appears to have prompted the university to file a formal complaint of sexual misconduct against McConnell and Plummer. In a September 30, 2013 letter informing McConnell of the compliant, Baker describes the newly-discovered (for the university, at least) video:

"[T]he nude male is attempting to make sexual contact with the nude female who may be incapacitated. It also appears that the nude male is being encouraged to make sexual contact with the nude female by another woman in the room who may also be recording the event. The nude male rubbed the woman on her buttocks and hip before standing over the woman. The nude woman does not appear to move. In the video, the nude male responds to the name 'Ryan.' Concluding the video, there is audio footage of what may be a physical assault on the nude woman."

In Baker's February 17, 2014 report to the dean of students (which, although marked "confidential" was included in the lawsuit filed last week) describes that video in even further detail. (Plummer has claimed she barged in on McConnell, grew angry that her boyfriend was cheating on her, and took the video as evidence to confront him with later). That video, according to Baker's report:

"appeared to capture Mr. McConnell physically touching Ms. Doe in a sexual manner and, his girlfriend, Natalie Plummer, striking her. ... Mr. McConnell masturbated, indicating that he was trying to stimulate himself. In the context of the actions that were taking place at the time, it appears that Mr. McConnell was attempting to stimulate himself to sexually penetrate Ms. Doe. ... Based on Mr. McConnell's position/posture and conduct/movement (masturbating to erect his penis) in the video, Mr. McConnell appeared to attempt to penetrate Ms. Doe while Ms. Plummer recorded it."

Here's how McConnell's attorney explained the video in a letter to the university: "he merely stroked her leg in an effort to wake her up. ... Although the events were unfortunate they do not amount to the level of sexual misconduct."

Baker's report ultimately concluded that McConnell violated the school's sexual assault policy, saying the evidence showed that McConnell had sex with the woman when she was too drunk to give consent and groped the woman and attempted to assault her while she was unconscious (and on video). The report also concluded that McConnell and Plummer "took abusive sexual advantage" of the woman by recording the encounter, sharing the videos, posting at least one photo of the incident on Facebook, and then deleting one of the videos when university officials started looking into the incident.

Attorneys for McConnell and Plummer, however, claim their due process rights were violated during the course of the university's investigation. They claim Baker repeatedly tried to exclude their attorney from one 2012 meeting. They also claim McConnell and Plummer weren't allowed to cross examine witnesses, call their own supporting witnesses, or question their accuser during appeals hearings last March and April.

Richard Walker, UH's dean of students, agreed with the findings of Baker's report last month and expelled Plummer and McConnell, who actually graduated from UH-Downtown while his case was pending. While the two are barred from taking classes at any University of Houston System campus in the future, the disciplinary charges won't appear on their transcripts -- meaning this incident probably would have escaped public scrutiny had they not filed a lawsuit in federal court.

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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas