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A group of Spelman, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta students stand in the back seat of a car waving, wearing formal suits, dresses and sashes for homecoming.

Spelman, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta students celebrate homecoming together in 2015.

Paras Griffin/Getty Images North America

A Spelman College student recently sued Morehouse College, alleging the institution poorly handled and ultimately dismissed her Title IX complaint after she was sexually assaulted by a Morehouse student. The lawsuit evokes a long history of tensions over how Title IX complaints are handled between the neighboring all-female and all-male historically Black colleges.

Abebitu “Abbie” Fields, a sophomore at Spelman, claims that Morehouse student Kyri Williams gave her alcoholic drinks at a party in February containing Royal Honey VIP, a sexual stimulant that the Food and Drug Administration warns has possible negative side effects. Williams and his roommate then allegedly invited Fields and another Spelman student back to their dorm room to continue drinking and hanging out. According to the lawsuit, Williams offered Fields his bed for the night, “requested a sexual encounter with her” and then “sexually assaulted and raped her” after she declined.

Fields reported the incident to the Morehouse Police Department, but the department didn’t interview witnesses or offer Fields any protective measures, the lawsuit notes. She then filed a formal complaint with the college’s Title IX office in May. Her complaint was dismissed in October. Morehouse representatives argued that Fields’s complaint wasn’t valid because she was not “participating in or attempting to participate in an education program or activity of the College” at the time of the complaint, according to the lawsuit.

Spelman and Morehouse both belong to the Atlanta University Center Consortium, a group of historically Black colleges and universities in Atlanta with adjacent campuses and close ties. Students regularly cross-register for courses and attend events on each other’s campuses. Spelman and Morehouse, sometimes nicknamed “SpelHouse,” are especially close-knit. The two campuses have an annual tradition of “sibling exchanges,” pairing Spelman “sisters” with designated Morehouse “brothers” to foster friendships across the institutions.

“I am not the first Spelman student to be sexually assaulted by one of our ‘brothers’ at Morehouse,” Fields said in a press release from the two law firms representing her. “Morehouse has done virtually nothing to address the drugging or campus sexual assault, as the offender is walking around on campus with me every day, but apparently, it had the time to deny me my federal civil rights under Title IX.”

Laura Dunn, Fields’s attorney, who specializes in sexual assault cases, said the goal is for “the court to say it is illegal for Morehouse to dismiss Spelman students’ Title IX complaints.”

“That way they’re not just no longer harming my client but ideally not harming any other Spelman student,” she said.

She also expressed frustration with Spelman leaders for being “complicit” and failing to pressure Morehouse to better address their students’ Title IX complaints. She believes if the two institutions had negotiated a policy regarding these kinds of complaints, Fields’s case wouldn’t have had to go to court.

Spelman officials declined to respond to requests for comment through a spokesperson.

A written statement from Morehouse officials, provided through a spokesperson, said the plaintiff’s complaints are part of an “open investigation being conducted by Morehouse’s Office of Title IX, Ethics and Compliance and the Morehouse College Police Department.”

“The history of Morehouse College is deeply rooted in the institution’s commitment to equality, inclusiveness, and justice” and “as an extension of those values, Morehouse takes very seriously all complaints of sexual misconduct, regardless of whether they implicate the statutory requirements of Title IX and its implementing regulations,” the statement said.

“The College denies the allegations contained in the plaintiff’s complaint,” the statement continued, “and further denies that Morehouse engages in any discriminatory practices whatsoever.”

Sharese Shields, an attorney representing Williams, wrote in a statement to Inside Higher Ed, “We see this as a case of outside influencers seeking to sow division between two highly esteemed historically black colleges, and Ms. Fields (and unfortunately Mr. Williams) are being used as pawns to further this agenda.”

Shields said her client and the plaintiff “consensually and coherently engaged in sexual relations after attending a college party off campus—a common occurrence at colleges and universities everywhere.”

“A number of witnesses can and will attest to the fact that Mr. Williams never spiked anyone’s drink, never forced Ms. Fields to share a ride with him and his friends back to their dorm and certainly never forced her to have sex,” she added. “He has eagerly cooperated with Morehouse College’s investigative personnel since first being made aware of these allegations last spring, as he wants nothing more than to move on with his studies and clear his name of these salacious and outrageously false claims.”

Decades of Complaints

Fields isn’t the first Spelman student frustrated by Morehouse officials’ response after reporting sexual assault or harassment on campus. Students and alumnae say it’s been a perennial problem.

These concerns came up as early as the mid-1990s, when a Spelman student reported having been raped by multiple Morehouse students. It was a cover story in Emerge, a now-defunct magazine focused on issues important to Black communities, and sparked heated discussions and debates at Morehouse, Spelman and other HBCUs about gender-based violence at Morehouse.

Saida Grundy, an associate professor of sociology and African American and Black diaspora studies at Boston University who authored a book about gender politics at Morehouse, said sexual harassment and assaults likely preceded the 1990s incident, but that was the first time sexual violence against Spelman students got national attention.

Grundy attended Spelman as an undergraduate in the early 2000s and recalled how “many Spelman students just saw their rapists walk across the stage and graduate. It was almost like you had to swallow the injustice, the insult that Morehouse was going to do almost nothing.”

Reports of sexual assault and harassment, and complaints about how cases were handled, persisted more than a decade later. A social media storm over the issue erupted in 2016 when an anonymous Twitter account detailed the alleged gang rape of a Spelman freshman, The Washington Post reported. Students started to discuss campus sexual assault under the hashtags #rapedatSpelman and #rapedbyMorehouse, and students on both campuses held protests in support of the anonymous student.

A BuzzFeed News investigation that year also described how a Spelman student’s complaint against a Morehouse student came to naught after an independent investigator hired by the college concluded she had not been assaulted, despite acknowledging that she said “no” to sex repeatedly. Her complaint was also incorrectly categorized as “simple battery” by the college, BuzzFeed News found. Morehouse officials announced an overhaul of its Title IX complaint process and the replacement of its Title IX coordinator later that year.

As the Me Too movement swept the country in 2017, Spelman students also launched a campaign called We Know What You Did, sharing the names of male students accused of sexual assault on signs posted around the consortium campuses and on social media, The Root reported. Signs and graffiti also accused college leaders of failing to address the problem. Spelman faculty members signed an open letter in support of the effort, and both institutions released statements signaling their commitment to policies protecting students from sexual misconduct.

Fields’s lawsuit also cites a 2022 court order from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta division, about a case in which an unidentified Morehouse student allegedly raped a different Spelman student, identified as Alexis Doe, at his off-campus apartment in 2017. She also alleged he and his friends harassed her for about two years online and in person after she became pregnant and got an abortion. She reportedly shared what happened with the Morehouse Title IX coordinator a year after the assault, but the case wasn’t resolved until 2020, after she graduated. She alleged, “Morehouse fails to educate its students on consent and sexual misconduct, frequently mishandles reports of sexual assault (which fosters a culture of sexual violence), and has unusually frequent turnover with Title IX coordinators.”

The court order agreed Morehouse treated Doe’s reports with “deliberate indifference.” Doe and Morehouse reached a settlement earlier this year, according to court records.

Grundy noted that because Morehouse is the only four-year Black men’s liberal arts college in the country, college administrators and alumni sometimes see accusations of sexual assault as tarnishing not only the college’s reputation but the image of Black men as a whole, which puts extra pressure on Spelman students not to report them.

She added that the topic is extra sensitive in light of the history of how often false “accusations of gender violence, accusations of sexual predation, accusations of rapaciousness were used against Black men to terrorize Black communities writ large.”

Possibly the most famous example is that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman and became a flash point of the civil rights movement.

But “two things can be true,” Grundy said. “It is also true that Black men can harm Black women and can harm gender-nonconforming Black people,” and that that urgently needs addressing regardless of “what white people might think.”

Attention to this issue has continued this year. An anonymous Instagram account called ltk_AUC, which stands for “Let them know Atlanta University Center,” posted more than a dozen stories submitted by students who experienced sexual harassment and assault at colleges in the consortium. One refers to “Kyri” and accuses him and a friend of giving out a drink called “B-rho honey” with a sexual stimulant to female students. Another encouraged women to “stay safe” from “Kyri Williams” after he “insisted” they continue having sex and she “eventually gave in,” despite having said it was “painful” and she wanted to stop, according to the post.

The Lawsuit

Dunn, Fields’s attorney, said she was hired after Fields made a complaint to the campus police and didn’t receive any updates on her case for months. Dunn helped Fields file Title IX complaints with both Spelman and Morehouse in May. Although Spelman offered support, the case wasn’t in the college’s jurisdiction. Fields followed up with Morehouse in late August to ask about the status of the case and whether the college had made any progress in the investigation or done an “individualized threat assessment” to determine if it was safe to have the alleged perpetrator on campus.

They didn’t directly answer the question about the assessment, and “they kept saying, ‘We’ll get back to you,’” she said.

Dunn also interviewed the other female student who was in the dorm room during the reported sexual assault. The student told her that she was with Williams’s roommate and her view of Fields was obstructed, so she didn’t see or hear what happened, but afterward, Williams and his roommate repeatedly contacted her, asking her to tell campus police that Fields had consented to sex, even though she had not heard Fields do so. She also told Dunn campus police never contacted her.

In an email exchange with outside counsel hired by Morehouse, Jeffrey J. Nolan, Dunn was told that Fields didn’t seem to be seeking access to educational programming or activities at Morehouse at the time of the complaint. Dunn responded that Fields attended events at Morehouse roughly once per week, signaled interest in taking business classes there and planned to play on the college’s intramural soccer team and join its student newspaper, The Maroon Tiger, this academic year, which would regularly put her on campus with the man she says assaulted her, according to the lawsuit. Morehouse still dismissed Fields’s complaint on the grounds that Title IX regulations didn’t apply to her.

“I’ve been a sexual assault lawyer for a decade—I have never seen a school care so little,” Dunn said.

Morehouse “endeavors at all times to engage in a timely and cooperative process with complainants and respondents upon receiving information about potential sexually-based offenses,” the statement from Morehouse read. “Morehouse’s Title IX Coordinator ensures that the College’s policies and procedures for sexual misconduct cases are uniformly enforced in a manner that protects the interests of all parties. In all cases, whether Title IX or non–Title IX sexual misconduct matters, the College conducts a thorough investigation, provides supportive measures, and affords the parties an opportunity for a hearing.”

Fields said in the press release that the status quo can’t continue.

“They want us to be sisters and brothers on this campus—but that is not possible as long as Morehouse protects its own at the expense of Spelman students,” she said. “Morehouse cannot look the other way and sweep this under the rug.”

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