Is a Drunk Shaming and Sexual Assault Case in Michigan Part of a National Trend?

A police report from Meridian Township, Michigan detailing an evening of troubling incidents among a group of Haslett Public Schools teachers “drunk shaming” may be but one example of a much broader problem.

Todd A. Heywood, a freelance journalist living in Michigan and a member of the Center for Independent Journalism also writes for Rewire. This article originally appeared Tuesday morning, October 13th, in the Michigan Messenger.

A police report from Meridian Township, Michigan detailing an evening of troubling incidents among a group of Haslett Public Schools teachers involving drug use and “drunk shaming” is prompting questions about the teachers’ behavior and institutional accountability in this suburban community near East Lansing.

The police report addresses a number of incidents that took place at an end-of-year party hosted in 2007 by a Haslett teacher and attended by several other teachers from the district. The police report was provided to Michigan Messenger by one of those teachers, Veronica Piechotte, who says she was victimized by her colleagues that evening and that neither the Haslett school administration nor the legal system had acted on her complaints until Michigan Messenger began its inquiry.

PHOTOS: What follows is a photo slideshow of the incident, some taken by participants during the drunk shaming incident and some taken the next day at the medical examiner’s office. Some viewers may consider the photos graphic.

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According to the account Piechotte gave police the day after the incident, on the last day of school in 2007, Piechotte and five other Haslett school teachers, Lauri Etheridge, Timothy Beebe, Brian Town, Daniel McKinney and Heather Woodworth, joined their colleagues at an East Lansing bar to celebrate the beginning of summer vacation. As the party moved from the bar to McKinney’s house, things took a turn for the worse. The people involved dispute some of what happened during the evening, but each of them spoke with police at the time, providing a contemporaneous, first-hand account.

‘Degraded, defiled, lifeless’

According to the police report, Etheridge, Town, Piechotte and Woodworth stopped at Town’s home on the way to McKinney’s house, which is a short distance from the school. There, according to the report, they decided to smoke marijuana and Town produced and provided the drug for the three women, who went to the garage to smoke it. The teachers then continued on to McKinney’s house.

Later that night, after more alcohol consumption by all involved, Piechotte crawled between a coffee table and a sofa in McKinney’s living room. There she passed out.

According to the report, Town and Beebe decided it would be “funny” to draw on Piechotte’s unconscious body. The two proceeded to draw penises on her legs, glasses on her face, write the word “balls” backwards on her forehead and write their names on her stomach. Much of the writing was sexual and crude. McKinney and his wife, as well as Etheridge and staff member Phil Rutkowski, watched the drawing. McKinney took pictures with his digital camera, and at least one person took pictures with a cell phone. (Editor’s Note: Some readers may consider the photos taken during the drunk shaming to be graphic.)

Beebe and Town told the police that they had each written references to the other on Piechotte’s body, Town writing “Beebe was here” and Beebe writing “I love Brian Town” on her midsection. Beebe says he did not recall writing any obscene symbols, but his recollection was not clear.

What the two men had done, with the other teachers watching, was called “drunk shaming,” or humiliating people after they pass out from intoxication.

Beebe, Town and others told police the markings were not done maliciously but as a joke, or as Town said, because they “love her.” Beebe said he had done similar things to others, including Town.

Piechotte has other words for how the drawings made her feel: “degraded, defiled, lifeless, treated like an object, treated like, frankly, a bathroom stall.”

“I have never been so humiliated in my whole …” her voice trailed off during a recent interview with Michigan Messenger. “You ask me to explain it, and I don’t have the words.”

Piechotte said she understands that she made inappropriate choices that night. She said she drank too much and smoked marijuana, but she said that didn’t give her co-workers permission to write on her body.

“The humiliation that goes with people writing horrendous things on intimate parts of my body,” said Piechotte, who is openly lesbian. “I mean we’re talking one inch from my vagina. We’re talking names on my stomach like they were signing some graffiti on some property they had claimed. There is nothing more humiliating.”

Piechotte said she is going public because she wants her experience to prevent others from having to go through her trauma by bringing awareness to the practice, which has been documented in countless YouTube videos and photos that have become popular online.

“You just don’t treat another human being like that,” she said.

Piechotte also alleges that she was given a date rape drug and sexually assaulted in a bathroom before she passed out. The other person involved admits to sexual activity but claims it was consensual and denies providing Piechotte any date rape drugs. The prosecutor did not file any charges on these claims, finding that the evidence and testimony were insufficient.

No police charges over drunk-shaming

Piechotte went to the police the day following the incident.

When asked about the drunk shaming during an interview with police, Town admitted to providing the marijuana but told the officer he did not have it anymore. The officer told Town he did not believe him, and according to the report, Town subsequently went back to his home and returned to the Meridian Township Police Department with 1.25 grams of marijuana and a pipe.

When Meridian Township police officials concluded their investigation, they submitted their report to Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III, seeking among other charges, charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and possession with intent to distribute marijuana without financial remuneration against Town.

Dunnings, however, said he felt he was unable to issue a charge on the alleged sexual assault, explaining to Piechotte that he could support seeking battery charges against the alleged assailant. Piechotte was not satisfied with this determination, and Dunnings had another, unnamed female county prosecutor review the file. She agreed with Dunnings’ assessment. Shortly thereafter, Dunnings became aware that he had a minor business relationship with one of the witnesses in the case and disclosed this to Piechotte’s attorney. Piechotte asked Dunnings to recuse himself, which he did. The case was referred to the state attorney general’s office, which sent it to Clinton County Prosecutor Charles Sherman, who chose not to file any charges at all.

In an interview with Michigan Messenger, Sherman said what happened to Piechotte was not acceptable. But he felt he could not bring criminal charges for a number of reasons, including the length of time that had lapsed between the incident and when he reviewed the case.

“It’s a judgment call that has to be made between what’s considered a practical joke and what the criminal justice system should get involved in,” Sherman said. “[Prosecuting] is like coming in with a hammer. That’s my remedy. That’s the only remedy I have. I can’t send you to your room and say no video games for three weeks.”

Sherman also said he did not file the marijuana charges against Town because he viewed that incident — specifically the allegation that Town had delivered the drugs to the police himself days after the incident — as a separate issue that was outside the bounds of what he had been asked to look at by the attorney general’s office.

Dunnings said that he had to recuse himself from the case before he had made a final determination on whether to issue warrants. He said he was very reluctant to pursue the marijuana charges because he would have to charge not only Town, but Woodward, Etheridge and Piechotte for possession. Dunnings said he felt Piechotte was traumatized enough as it was without charging her with a crime.

“You see the quandary?” Dunnings said. “You try to do something to bring justice, but what would the justice have been in charging her, too?”

Dunnings said the marijuana charges were part of the referral to Sherman. In regard to Sherman’s claim that he saw the drug charges as outside of his scope, Dunnings disagreed, noting that the knowledge of the marijuana possession and use came to light as a result of the investigation into the drunk-shaming incident.

Dunnings is unable to prosecute anything connected to the case now that he has recused himself from the case. He called the drunk-shaming incident unacceptable.

“I think it is absurd that adults, [in] college or not, would engage in this,” Dunnings said. “It’s repugnant. I don’t see how anyone can find pleasure in doing this.”

Drunk-shaming common but legally ambiguous

Shari Murgittroyd, program coordinator for Michigan State University’s sexual assault program, said the issue of drunk shaming is nothing new. She said she has heard stories for 20 years of situations where people who had passed out were drawn upon, but that the stories have changed dramatically in recent years.

“The phenomenon that I have seen in the last two years, more and more women are experiencing the drunk-shaming after passing out or becoming unconscious or blacking out or whatever with alcohol and having pictures drawn on them and vulgar language of a sexual content,” she said.

“I think that this is a whole other level of sexual harassment and sexual assault that’s disturbing,” Murgittroyd said. “It’s just another form of humiliation, you know, someone taking power and control over some one in a degrading way to humiliate them. I don’t see it as funny or a joke. … [W]hen you start removing clothing and drawing on parts of the body that are very private, if you are touching those parts of the body and somebody is not giving you consent to do that, that is sexual assault. That is criminal sexual conduct in the state of Michigan.”

She acknowledges prosecutions in drunk-shaming can be difficult.

“This is up and coming. I think law enforcement and prosecutors are just having more of these reports coming forward and learning how to investigate them,” she said. “And I think they are going to see more and more people coming forward trying to make reports and press charges, because it is of a criminal nature. But I think that because of our culture, and the way that it is seen as joking and in fun, that it is going to be difficult to prosecute those cases, to get jurors to buy in that someone is really victimized.”

She said that in order to address this situation, it may be time for legislators to create a new law, although she hopes law enforcement will use laws already available to them.

Haslett schools took little action

While criminal charges were never filed in this case, Haslett school officials — according to police records, emails and other documents provided by Piechotte and an interview with Superintendent Mike Duda — were aware of the incident and took little if any action in response to it until Michigan Messenger started examining the case.

The police reports show that Beebe, Town and Piechotte each made contact with different administrators of the high school following the incident. The reports record that Beebe informed Assistant Principal Darin Ferguson “that Beebe drew a soccer ball and some other innocuous things on Piechotte’s body …”

The report also indicates that Piechotte had informed another assistant principal, Lynne Bartley, who has since retired. The investigator was told as well by principal Bart Wegenke that he was aware of the incident.

As a result of the trauma she claims to have suffered because of the incident, Piechotte was on a leave for part of 2007. The district tried to separate her from her employment because her medical leave had expired. She declined because felt she was not being offered a fair separation agreement. She returned to the classroom to teach at Haslett’s alternative high school and this year was assigned to the middle school. During negotiations over her future with Haslett Public Schools, Piechotte showed Duda the pictures of the drawings on her body from the night the drunk shaming took place.

Duda, in an interview with Michigan Messenger, said the district had attempted to gain access to the police report from both Meridian Township Police Department and Dunnings, but had been unable to do so. Duda said he had not been provided with any police reports about any of the incidents.

A document in the police report mandated by state law was faxed to Duda on June 28, 2007. That document informs the district of an alleged crime within 1,000 feet of school property. In this case it was the marijuana use at Town’s home that was being reported. The document informs Duda that Woodward, Piechotte, Town and Etheridge were alleged to have been in “illegal possession of a controlled substance, or a control substance analogue, or other intoxicant.”

In addition the document noting the incident had been reported to Duda, there is a hand-written note that reads “901 [Chief David Hall] showed the form to Mr. Duda and discussed it with same.” The note was signed by Meridian Township Police Department Sgt. Greg Frenger.

Duda says he was out of town when the document would have been sent to the district, and that he had no conversation with Hall about the incident. Hall confirmed that it was possible that a conversation did not happen, and noted that the mandated reports are often misplaced by school officials in Meridian Township.

Piechotte said that no investigation ever took place and she was never questioned, nor is she aware of any disciplinary action taken toward any of the other teachers.

As a result of Michigan Messenger’s inquiry, Duda said the district’s law firm was reviewing the police incident reports with an eye on what, if anything, the district can do in relation to the incident. He termed the review an investigation.

In addition to the investigation, Duda said the school district would be bringing in outside consultants to develop a conversation about diversity. The news of the drunk shaming comes following separate allegations of ethnic insensitivity on the part of Duda.

The personnel files of the teachers involved in the drunk shaming incident reveal nothing to indicate that the school district took responsive actions, including any records of counseling sessions to discuss inappropriate behavior, letters of reprimand, nor evidence of an investigation or questioning by the administration.

It is that apparent lack of action that most bothers Piechotte. “While I am dismayed that both my employer and Michigan’s legal system have failed to recognize the brutality of this incident by not taking any tangible action,” she said. “It underscores the need to have meaningful dialogue about the underlying issues that enable a culture of bias and violence to exist, so that others will not suffer as I have.”

Comments were sought from Woodworth, Town, Beebe and Etheridge, but none responded before press time. The Haslett Education Association has advised the teachers not to make any public statements.