The phrase campus sexual assault is a bit of a misnomer, as the federal government clarified on Friday: Colleges and universities must contend with any sexual violence that interferes with their students’ abilities to pursue their educations, whether or not it occurred on school grounds.
That was not the policy at Kansas State University, where two female students, Sara Weckhorst and Tessa Farmer, say they were raped in separate incidents at school-sanctioned fraternity houses, only to be told that Kansas State couldn’t investigate because the houses sat outside the campus boundary. The women sued, and now the government has taken their side, as the New York Times reports. In court filings, the Departments of Justice and Education have informed Kansas State that its approach was “incorrect.”
This isn’t the first time the federal government has had to remind colleges that their responsibility extends beyond the borders of their properties. The law that determines this is Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at any educational institution that receives federal funds. Rape and sexual assault have constituted discrimination under Title IX ever since a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, but few schools thought seriously about this aspect of the law until 2011, when the Obama administration circulated a “Dear Colleague” to schools across the country. From the start, that letter conveyed not only that the government would now take seriously schools’ onus to prevent and confront sexual assault, but also that these rules applied to students’ behavior off-campus as well as on. As the 2011 letter explained:
Schools may have an obligation to respond to student-on-student sexual harassment that initially occurred off school grounds, outside a school’s education program or activity. If a student files a complaint with the school, regardless of where the conduct occurred, the school must process the complaint in accordance with its established procedures. Because students often experience the continuing effects of off-campus sexual harassment in the educational setting, schools should consider the effects of the off-campus conduct when evaluating whether there is a hostile environment on campus.
In 2014, the Department of Education sent out a reminder, in which it explicitly mentioned off-campus fraternities as places that are “clearly covered” under Title IX. Still, Kansas State isn’t the only institution that hasn’t been paying close enough attention. As the Times reports: “The court statements, by the Departments of Justice and Education, have been filed in about a dozen other lawsuits since 2010 where the law is in dispute.” Last year, a study into universities’ reporting practices found that the majority of schools also failed to disclose off-campus sexual assaults—even though they’re legally required to attempt to work with law enforcement to obtain that data.
In the Kansas State case, Weckhorst and Farmer are suing to force the university to investigate their claims, as well as for monetary damages. And the school’s argument—that it had no legal obligation to look into their allegations—has been effectively punctured. This probably won’t be the last time that the government files this set of court papers, but perhaps schools will finally absorb the message that even if a frat house is off campus, that doesn’t make it out of bounds.