Lawsuit alleges culture of covering up sexual assault complaints in Baltimore County, UMBC

More than a year after Baltimore County officials pledged to reform how sexual assault cases are investigated, a new class-action lawsuit alleges that county prosecutors and detectives continued to cover up complaints.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, was brought by two former University of Maryland, Baltimore County students, who say they were raped in separate incidents that they reported to university and county police. The two women allege in the suit that authorities humiliated, intimidated and deceived them as part of an intentional effort to “cover up justifiable complaints of sexual assault.”

Defendants include Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, Baltimore County police, UMBC and the Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland. The plaintiffs contend their experiences are representative of a “concealed epidemic of sexual assault in Baltimore County.”

One also alleges the UMBC police discouraged the reporting of the sexual assault to local law enforcement. They are seeking $10 million in damages.

The Baltimore Sun is withholding the women’s names because it does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

“We have evidence that Baltimore County has continued to conceal or fail to act on reports of sexual assault despite their previous promises to change,” said attorney Rignal W. Baldwin, who is representing the women.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 10, comes nearly two years after Baltimore County police announced that the department would review three years' worth of rape cases that investigators deemed unfounded. A Buzzfeed News investigation found that county police labeled 34 percent of rape cases as unfounded — the national average is 7 percent — and did not thoroughly investigate them.

Shellenberger defended the department in 2016, saying cases he reviewed as part of the Buzzfeed report were not considered crimes under state law. He said Maryland has a very specific definition of rape, which requires force.

The lawsuit alleges Baltimore County police and prosecutors have a “pattern and practice” of coding reports of sexual assaults as merely ‘”suspicious circumstances” or “suspicious conditions.”

Such cases are not reported to the FBI or disclosed under the Clery Act — a federal law that requires colleges and universities to release crime statistics.

The independent review, released in February 2017, found that none of the 124 "unfounded" cases from 2013-2015 could have been prosecuted under existing law. But about a third could have been prosecuted if Maryland's definition of rape was changed, which prompted the General Assembly to pass a law, signed by Gov. Larry Hogan, that removed a centuries-old requirement that rape victims demonstrate they tried to physically resist their assailants.

Following the review, county officials in 2017 announced a number of changes to the way sexual assault investigations would be handled. Among the reforms: The state’s attorney’s office, not the Police Department, would determine when a case was deemed unfounded.

But since that change, the suit said more reports of sexual assault are coded as "cleared" due to "exceptional circumstances,” rather than unfounded. As a result, the suit said the number of arrests have decreased as the state’s attorney’s office is declining to pursue charges against suspects.

“Despite these promises of reform, Defendants continued deceptively miscoding reports of sexual assault in new ways, for the same end, depriving women of equal protection of the law,” the suit said.

Shellenberger declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokesman with the county Police Department declined to comment due to the pending litigation.

A University System of Maryland spokesman said in a statement that it is “committed to reducing the incidence of sexual misconduct and to responding when it happens.” The statement said the system and its 12 institutions “have adopted new policies and procedures reflecting our commitment to addressing sexual misconduct, and the USM supports each institution in furtherance of this commitment.”

A coalition of student activists at UMBC organized a protest Monday to demand accountability from campus officials. The coalition said it wants to see UMBC Police Chief Paul Dillon immediately removed from his position "for his failure to enact justice, for his use of fear tactics against survivors, for his disregard for safety."

Dillon also is named as a defendant in the suit.

In a meeting with student protesters on Monday, UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III said the university would launch “some kind of external review.”

“You have my word,” he said, “we will take this very seriously.”

One of the plaintiffs in the suit said she was drugged and sexually assaulted three years ago by a UMBC student on campus when she was a freshman at the university. She submitted to a rape kit, only to later learn that it was destroyed.

“No one told [the victim] that the evidence she had endured a painful and intrusive examination to collect would be destroyed before the administrative process could finish,” the lawsuit says.

Additionally, the plaintiff was discouraged by UMBC police from reporting the incident to local law enforcement, according to the suit. Instead, the incident was subject to an investigation by the school, which exonerated the assailant. When the plaintiff then reported the rape to police, the case was closed improperly, according to the suit.

The other plaintiff named in the suit said she was gang-raped by three UMBC baseball players last October, while she was a student at Towson University. The suit said she is a former UMBC student.

According to the lawsuit, the woman and a friend left a Towson bar around 1 a.m. Oct. 20 and went to an apartment, where the men likely mixed drugs in a vodka bottle and encouraged the women to drink from it before raping both of them. Only one of the women is a party to the lawsuit. That victim said she can only recall “horrific fragmentary memories” of the assault.

She submitted to a rape kit and reported the case to police, but it was “inexplicably closed,” the suit said.

County detectives interviewed the three men together at a Chik-fil-A, but they claimed the sex was consensual, the suit said. A prosecutor reviewing the cases ultimately declined to charge the men, and the case was "cleared due to exceptional circumstances,” according to the suit.

In March, the victim asked the court to intervene, and a managing court commissioner charged all three men with first-degree rape and related charges. Those charges were later dismissed.

According to the lawsuit, after the woman sought charges from the court, the state’s attorney began a pattern of intimidating behavior as retaliation for the woman’s actions, including sending county police officers to her home in Baltimore city to threaten her with criminal charges if she continued to pursue charges with the court commissioner.

About two months later, the lawsuit claims, the victim’s sister was fired from her internship in the Baltimore County state’s attorney’s office’s domestic violence section as a form of retaliation.

At Monday’s student protest, the coalition also called for officials within UMBC’s Title IX office and the head baseball coach to be suspended pending an investigation.

The coalition asked the university to implement systems that foster long-lasting change. It is asking UMBC to commit to becoming a leader in providing medical care to survivors of sexual assault. It wants nurses at the school health center to be trained on how to administer rape kits, a rarity on college campuses. Most students across the country instead have to go to a local hospital if they want a rape kit.

For far too long, student leaders said Monday, the campus "whisper network" has transmitted individual stories about sexual assault survivors encountering roadblocks when seeking justice.

The lawsuit shows the issues are systemic, said junior Erin Schoeneman.

The university needs to emphasize more preventative sexual assault education, the student leaders say. And top officials must say they're sorry.

"We are asking the entirety of upper administration to issue an apology for the gross mishandling of this situation," said junior Nate Stewart.

Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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