Women Claim Hillsdale College Silenced and ‘Blamed’ Them for Their Rapes in Lawsuit

The Roys Report [Chicago IL]

October 31, 2023

By Liz Lykins

Two women are accusing Hillsdale College, a private Christian school in Hillsdale, Mich., of silencing them and “blaming” them for their rapes, instead of their assailants, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

The women, Grace Chen and Danielle Villarreal, told USA Today they began attending Hillsdale because they thought it would be safe. But their suit, filed in the Western District of Michigan, claims that Hillsdale “fostered a campus environment that exposes students to an unacceptable and unusually high risk of sexual assault.”  

The suit adds, “When brave students report their experiences of sexual assault to school officials, they are met not with support, but with sham investigations, arbitrary decisions, and punishments,” the lawsuit said. “In response to calls for transparency and accountability, Hillsdale instead silences and threatens survivors, blaming them, not their assailants for their assaults.”

The suit claims Hillsdale failed to respond appropriately to reports of the alleged assaults due to its exemption from Title IX and because of negligence regarding student safety.

Hillsdale receives no federal dollars, which exempts it from all protocols under Title IX. Title IX requires schools to have a clear process for reporting sexual harassment or assault. The law also defines how assault investigations are to be conducted and outlines the rights of the victim and the accused.

“To maintain our independence in every regard, Hillsdale does not accept one penny of state or federal taxpayer funding – even indirectly in the form of student grants and loans,” a statement on the school’s website reads.  

However, the lawsuit claims that Hillsdale is subject to Title IX because it operates as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) registered entity, which is “a form of federal financial assistance.”

The lawsuit also alleges that Hillsdale’s sexual misconduct policy “is so deficient that even if the school had enforced it diligently, it still would not have prevented sexual assaults on campus.”

The women claimed the university was not clear in enough telling students what do in the case of an assault. While staff members mentioned what to do if assaulted during their freshmen orientation, the material was sandwiched between other topics, they said. 

Hillsdale defended its procedures regarding sexual violence to USA Today.

“The accusations made in the suit are serious mischaracterizations of Hillsdale College’s campus culture and sexual assault policies and procedures which have been developed with the utmost concern for the protection of our students,” Hillsdale spokeswoman Emily Stack Davis said in a statement.

The statement added that the college provides students with information about how to deal with misconduct allegations, and that its investigative procedures protect the rights of “the accused and alleged victims.”

Hilldale’s reporting process was unclear and accusatory

Both women said when they turned to the school for support after their assaults in 2021, they ran into a process of reporting that was unclear and accusatory.

Chen’s assault occurred when a man penetrated her with his fingers as she tried to fend him off, according to the lawsuit. He then forced her to masturbate him and then tried to force her to have intercourse with him.

Villarreal told USA Today she and her attacker had kissed earlier in the night. But she claimed she repeatedly told him she did not want to have sex because she was a virgin. He then raped her, she said.  

After the attacks, the women turned to family and the school for guidance and help. Villarreal also reported her attack to local police.

The women said that while college administrators claimed to believe their stories, they did not follow through with the support the two expected.

Chen said the school hired an outside attorney to review her claims but did so without her knowledge. That attorney, then suggested she should attempt to be friends with her attacker in the future, according to the lawsuit.  

“I felt very caught off guard,” Chen told USA Today. “I’m not going to go home over the summer and just forget about it because you told me to.” 

The lawsuit claims that the school’s general counsel, Bob Norton, told Villareal that she “reported her rape only after she came to regret a consensual sexual encounter.”

While Hillsdale did not respond to a question regarding Norton’s comments, the school did confirm to USA Today that it investigates allegations of sexual misconduct through independent attorneys, “as was done with the allegations of Ms. Chen and Ms. Villarreal.”

Both women said consequences for their attackers felt nonexistent. Chen, an athlete on the track and field team, reported she had to continue attending a class and practices where she saw the man who assaulted her.

Villarreal said the school informed her that her attacker would be suspended from playing on the baseball team “indefinitely.” By the next semester, she said he was practicing with the team again.

Chen and Villarreal hope the lawsuit changes how Hillsdale responds to sexual assaults on campus. They also are seeking for the school to pay their legal fees. As it is a class action suit, more plaintiffs could potentially join.

The women wanted to use their real names in the suit and in USA Today’s report. Chen said she decided this to make her story more impactful. For Villarreal, she said she wanted to gain control over her life.

“This is my story,” Villarreal said. “And I feel like when I put my name on it I can kind of take back some power and… what I felt like both the school and that guy took from me.”  

Chen, a junior, still attends Hillsdale. Villarreal transferred to Vanderbilt University, citing that the experience of reporting the rape played a part in her decision.

Hillsdale lacks regular security reports

Hillsdale has declined to take federal funding since the 1980s. Schools that do accept funding are required by the Clery Act to publish an annual list of crimes that occur on their campuses.

Hillsdale does say that it makes security reports available, on it its website. However, the only report included is one from five years ago. The document shares that staff did not log any reports of rape that year.  

Colleges that are required to comply with Clery standards can receive large fines if they fail to meet them. Earlier this month, Liberty University said that the U.S. Department of Education is threatening the school with an unprecedented $37.5 million fine for Clery Act violations, The Roys Report reported.

Founded in 1844, Hillsdale is a private Christian, liberal arts college in southern Michigan. The nonsectarian school has 1,573 total undergraduates, according to its website.