By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – The federal government is investigating how the University of Michigan handled a 2009 sexual assault allegation against then-football player Brendan Gibbons, who was accused of rape by a fellow student.
Gibbons, the starting kicker each of the last three seasons, continued his career until the final two games of 2013.
Douglas Smith, a former pathologist at the university, said he believes the federal investigation will reveal the delay occurred because the school acted strictly to protect its image.
“It was a cover-up,” Smith said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It wasn’t really about whether Gibbons was a good football player or not. It’s really that the university is very concerned about its image, and this was part of managing their image.”
Smith filed a complaint about the Gibbons case with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education. In a letter to Smith dated Feb. 24, 2014, the OCR said it would investigate the Gibbons matter and that Smith is not the only one who had filed such a complaint.
“OCR has determined it is appropriate to proceed to investigation on the following issue: that the University failed to promptly and equitably respond to complaints, reports, and/or incidents of sexual violence of which it had notice, and, as a result, students were subjected to a sexually hostile environment,” the letter stated. “Please note, however, that OCR is investigating the same issue in a separate complaint filed against the university, and your complaint will be consolidated with that complaint.
“As part of that investigation, OCR will review the University’s Title IX grievance procedure, including how it is being implemented in sexual harassment, including sexual violence, cases,” the letter continued.
U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the university will cooperate with the investigation.
“We’re very proud of our student sexual misconduct policy, our prevention efforts and our programs to support survivors of sexual misconduct,” he said in a statement. “We will fully cooperate with the Department of Education and we believe that a review of our policy, programs and investigations will conclude that the University of Michigan is doing what it should in this important area.”
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education sent out new guidelines pertaining to how universities should conduct investigations of sexual assault complaints. Smith said he believes that before 2011, the university would not launch investigations if complainants were not filing criminal charges.
“What they’re going to find is that the university had a policy to deter students from filing student disciplinary complaints, and they did that by having an unwritten rule that said that the victim had to follow through on a criminal charge before the university would investigate a disciplinary charge,” Smith said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Smith said the alleged victim reached out to him on Facebook after he voiced concerns to the university about their handling of the case. She thanked him for sticking up for her, Smith said.
“In the case of Gibbons, his victim was very afraid to go to a public trial, which would have been very public with a U of M football player,” Smith said. “She was terrified about going to a criminal trial but she wanted to go through the student disciplinary process, and the university refused.
“It was a strategy to reduce the number of reported sexual assaults and make the university look safer than it was,” Smith added.
Smith said the woman who accused Gibbons had close family ties to the university, but even that did not change the way the school handled the situation.
“It really has nothing to do with who the victim is or who the perpetrator is,” Smith said. “It’s really entirely about the marketing image for the university.”
Gibbons was expelled from the university toward the end of last year, as documents dated Nov. 20 and viewed by the Michigan Daily revealed, after a university investigation yielded a “preponderance of evidence” that he sexually assaulted a woman.
Head coach Brady Hoke has declined comment on the matter, citing privacy laws, choosing not to expand on his initial explanations for why Gibbons couldn’t play in the final two games of the season, first because of an injury and then a “family matter.”
This isn’t the first time the storied university has been accused of covering up a crime to protect its image – and not just by Smith. One of the most disturbing incidents recently, one that was a monstrous black eye for the university, was the 2011 scandal involving a six-month delay by the university in reporting child pornography found in possession of a doctor at the Pediatric Emergency Department at U-M Hospital.
According to the Ann Arbor News, records show that eight people knew about the situation by June 2, but the crime was not reported until November.
The U.S. Department of Education also investigated the university for its handling of that situation.
“This was a serious failure on the part of our institution – there is simply no other way to describe it,” university president Mary Sue Coleman said at the time, per the Ann Arbor News.
Coleman will retire in July 2014, and Smith said he thinks her leaving is related to the child pornography scandal. Smith said the university has a pattern of covering up crimes and that he is pleased the federal government is investigating the university’s handling of the 2009 incident involving Gibbons.
“I hope they will look at the issue fairly broadly,” Smith said, “because I think there are probably many other victims that were treated the same way in terms of refusing to investigate their assaults.”