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Two students accuse Hillsdale College of retaliating against them after they reported sexual assaults

Abuilding on the Hillsdale College campus.

Two young women who reported to their conservative Michigan college that they were sexually assaulted by male students have accused the school in a lawsuit of conducting “phony investigations” into their allegations and then blaming them “for being raped.”

Danielle Villarreal, 21, said she filed a report of her assault to the police as well as Hillsdale College and wound up leaving the school after discovering that the male student she said attacked her had not been punished and was still on campus.

“You have this feeling like there’s a target on your back and you’re not getting any support from the school,” Villarreal, who now attends Vanderbilt University, told NBC News. “I felt it wasn’t safe for me to be there anymore.”

Danielle Villarreal, 21, in her dormitory at Vanderbilt University.Danielle Villarreal, 21, in her dormitory at Vanderbilt University. Tamara Reynolds

Grace Chen, who is a 21-year-old junior at Hillsdale College, said both she and her mother were repeatedly rebuffed when they asked the school for proof in writing that they investigated her assault allegation.

Chen said she gave the school a written account of her assault and it arranged for her to meet with an outside lawyer it hired to investigate the rape allegation. She did not report the incident to police.

“They promised to do a swift and thorough investigation,” Chen said in an interview. “They said I didn’t have to go to the police.”

NBC News does not normally identify victims of sexual assault, but Villarreal and Chen gave permission to use their full names.

In court papers filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan on Oct. 25, lawyers for Villarreal and Chen alleged that the school retaliated against the women and blamed them for reporting their sexual assaults while failing to fully investigate the allegations.

“Plaintiffs Chen and Villarreal were both subjected to — and harmed by — this toxic environment,” the lawsuit said.

While specific individuals are named within the lawsuit, only Hillsdale College is listed as a defendant. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

In an email, Hillsdale College spokesperson Emily Stack Davis said the allegations by both women were thoroughly investigated. Investigation findings and punishments imposed on students are kept confidential, Davis said.

“Any discipline — whether in regards to a student’s failings academically, socially, morally, or otherwise — are not the subject of public ridicule or judgement by that student’s peers or by the campus at large,” Davis wrote. “In an effort to maintain confidentiality for all parties, including witnesses, written findings are not distributed.”

Hillsdale College has, in recent years, become a model and resource for conservatives seeking to overhaul the nation’s public schools. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has held it up as a model for how he wants to revamp the public New College of Florida into a “Hillsdale of the South.” The college has helped to set up charter schools in over a dozen states and pushes a conservative curriculum that, among other things, rejects the argument that racism still permeates American society.

A lawyer for the women said the school failed to protect its students.

“This is a school that holds itself out as being based on Christian values. But they’re not walking the walk,” said Annika Martin, one of the attorneys on the case. “When you don’t protect your students you hinder their growth and development. That is what is happening here.”

Davis said Hillsdale College and “all organizations have a moral responsibility to take sexual assault allegations seriously.”

“It is also the case that as a Christian college, we are especially unique; we investigate not only all allegations of sexual assault and other violent crimes, we also investigate allegations of misbehavior and uncivil conduct,” Davis wrote.

Hillsdale, which is located in southern Michigan about 110 miles west of Detroit, has fewer than 1,700 students and a hefty $900 million endowment.

The school does not take any government funding, including federal aid to students, which means it is not subject to federal regulations like Title IX, which forbids sex-based discrimination in higher education. Title IX requires schools to have a system in place to respond to allegations of sexual assault.

But Martin argues that the school still has a responsibility to protect its students.

“There isn’t a state statute that specifically spells out what a school like Hillsdale has to do when a student reports a sexual assault, but I would argue they still have a duty to protect their students and they violated that in this instance,” Martin said.

Davis said the school does have a clear process for reporting and investigating sexual assault allegations, and that every incoming student is provided with a copy of the Hillsdale College Sexual Misconduct Policy and is required to attend a “mandatory, in-person presentation on sexual misconduct.”

“To make sure all understand, every parent of an incoming student is mailed (separately from the student) the same Honor Code and ‘Being a Student’ booklet,” Davis wrote.

Davis pointed out that the college’s sexual misconduct policy is publicly available on its website and states that reports of sex assault “may be made directly to any member of the College faculty or staff, to local law enforcement, or to both.”

Villarreal, who is from Omaha, Nebraska, said she was drawn to Hillsdale College because it seemed like a safe environment and because the school offered her a big scholarship.

“I had visited once and I liked it,” Villarreal said in an interview. “And things started out fine. It was exciting to meet new people. But as I got more integrated into the community I discovered that this place had a lot of biases that weren’t, I guess, advertised.”

Villarreal said she reported her assault to the police, as well as to Hillsdale.Villarreal said she reported her assault to the police, as well as to Hillsdale.Tamara Reynolds

On Aug. 29, 2021, when she was starting her sophomore year, Villarreal said she was raped by a member of the school’s baseball team, according to the lawsuit.

“Plaintiff Villarreal was paralyzed with fear and the assailant proceeded to penetrate her with his penis,” the lawsuit states. “The rape concluded only after Plaintiff Villarreal told her assailant to stop.”

Villarreal, in an interview, said she told her parents and some classmates what happened and then went to the police to file a report.

“I was advised by my parents and some friends at school to do that so it wouldn’t be swept under the rug. One of my friends had something happen to her and she warned me the school might not be responsive,” Villarreal said.

Scott Hephner, police chief for the city of Hillsdale, confirmed that Villarreal reported the alleged rape on Aug. 30, 2021. He said that after police conducted an investigation they recommended charging Villarreal’s alleged attacker with criminal sexual conduct.

“The request was denied by the prosecutor’s office,” Hephner said.

Davis said the college is aware that the police contacted the county prosecutor about this student. She said the fact that they did not immediately arrest him indicates they did not regard him “to be a threat” and were not certain they had probable cause to take him into custody.

“We are not aware of any evidence suggesting that Hillsdale PD ‘recommended’ charges or otherwise felt that charges should be issued,” Davis wrote. “Again, I urge you to contact the prosecutor’s office on these important details.”

NBC News has reached out to the Hillsdale County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for comment.

Villarreal said when she then decided to report the incident to Hillsdale College, she wasn’t even sure whom to report it to.

“There was no Title IX office. I mean, my first questions were, ‘Should I talk to the dean of women, because I’m a woman? Or do I call the dean of men,’ who is who I wound up calling,” she said.

According to the lawsuit, she was then directed to Mechelle Zarou, who is described as an “outside lawyer who would investigate the rape.”

“At our initial meeting, she was listening and taking notes and giving me signs that she believed me,” Villarreal said.

Their second meeting, months later, “felt more like an interrogation,” Villarreal said.

In that meeting, Zarou went through the discrepancies between the two accounts, asking questions suggesting Villarreal was to blame but also indicating that “the rapist maintained that he never asked Plaintiff Villarreal if she wanted to have sex, he just penetrated her,” according to the court papers.

Zarou told Villarreal during another meeting that the accused student would not be expelled “because he stopped penetrating her when she told him to,” the lawsuit states.

NBC News left two phone messages for Zarou. She did not return those calls.

Eventually, Villarreal was told the accused student would be required to do community service, placed on “social probation,” and suspended “indefinitely from baseball,” the lawsuit states.

But it later turned out the student was “allowed back onto the baseball team for the second semester, just in time for the season to start,” the lawsuit states.

When Villarreal complained, Hillsdale’s legal counsel, Bob Norton, told her parents “that if she continued to inquire about the investigation and punishment, there would be consequences for her,” the lawsuit states. “Norton further suggested that Plaintiff Villarreal reported her rape only after she came to regret a consensual sexual encounter.”

NBC News reached out to Norton by email, but he has not returned that request for comment.

In her response, Davis wrote that the allegation that Norton threatened “consequences” against Villarreal is false.

Villarreal said what happened to her was no secret on campus. She said her schoolwork suffered and she was treated for depression. She said she feels much safer since leaving Hillsdale College and enrolling at Vanderbilt University.

Chen, who grew up outside of Los Angeles, said she too was attracted to Hillsdale because it “presents itself as a safe and welcoming environment.” Everything changed, she said in the lawsuit, when she was sexually assaulted by a Hillsdale track athlete in November 2021.

In the lawsuit, Chen said her alleged attacker forced her to touch his penis and then tried to “penetrate” her.

“Plaintiff Chen refused to have sex with the assailant and was terrified throughout,” the lawsuit states. The incident ended after Chen repeatedly asked for the alleged attacker to stop, according to the lawsuit. She said he later apologized to her.

Chen sought guidance to process the incident from a female school counselor in February 2022, the suit states. She said she was discouraged when the counselor “advised that the school’s Deans would take no action on a report of sexual assault without concrete evidence.”

However, Chen did report the assault to the school’s deans the next month because she was concerned her alleged attacker might go after other female students, according to the lawsuit. Her meeting with Dean of Women Rebekah Dell and Associate Dean of Women Stephanie Gravel “was encouraging,” Chen said.

Chen said she gave them a written account of her assault and they arranged for her to meet with Kimberly Graham, an outside lawyer the school hired to investigate the rape allegation.

NBC tried to reach Graham by phone and text message multiple times and did not receive a response.

“They promised to do a swift and thorough investigation,” Chen said in an interview. “They said I didn’t have to go to the police.”

That same month, Chen said in the court papers, she met with Graham, who said “her assailant did not refute her allegations.”

“Graham, however, made inappropriate statements to downplay the severity of the assault, and told Plaintiff Chen that she was fortunate that her assailant did not rape her,” the lawsuit states.

Graham also refused to interview the witnesses Chen identified and said her alleged attacker “would not be punished because he was already doing community service, AA meetings, and counseling for a prior drinking infraction,” the lawsuit states.

“Graham suggested that Plaintiff Chen take time off during the summer break and put the sexual assault behind her so she could be friends with her assailant in the future,” the suit states.

Davis said in her email that “the allegation that Ms. Graham ‘urged her to be friends with her alleged rapist’ is false.”

Chen said Graham never provided her with a written summary of the investigation or its conclusions. Her mother was also unsuccessful when she tried to obtain records from the school.

“In fact, I had to badger them with emails to get them to meet with me,” Chen said in an interview. “They didn’t want a paper trail or anything.”

Chen said the school took no steps to isolate her from her alleged attacker. He remained on the track team and she continued to run into him in classes.

“Hillsdale never implemented a no-contact order,” the lawsuit states.

Davis disputed that statement, saying the school “implemented no-contact orders related to both allegations.”

Chen said she got a lot of support from her female classmates at Hillsdale.

“So many women have reached out to me to express their support, and some have told me similar stories about reporting abuse to school officials and being treated with similar negligence,” she said.

Chen said her mother supports her decision to remain at Hillsdale even after what happened. “She wants me to be a voice for other women,” Chen said.

Corky Siemaszko

Corky Siemaszko is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital.

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