Two women suing Kansas State University for refusing to investigate complaints that they were raped in off-campus fraternity houses now have the federal government backing them up.
In court documents, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education say a K-State policy to not investigate complaints of student-on-student rape when the attacks occur off campus is wrong.
In separate lawsuits filed in April in U.S. District Court in Kansas, students Sara Weckhorst of Doylestown, Pa., and Tessa Farmer of Overland Park accused K-State of violating Title IX, the federal gender discrimination law that protects students against sexual violence and harassment. The departments of Justice and Education share responsibility for enforcing Title IX.
Cari Simon, the attorney representing the two women who are suing the university, said Weckhorst and Farmer “filed the lawsuit to stand up for victims of rape on college campuses and are thrilled to see the U.S. federal government out in support of the law.”
In both cases, the students told the university about rapes that allegedly occurred at different fraternity houses. But according to their suits, the students were told that the school would not investigate because the fraternities where the alleged rapes occurred were located off campus.
K-State later argued that the lawsuits should be dismissed, saying the university is not legally responsible for reports of student-on-student rape at off-campus frat houses or events.
But the federal government, in a court brief referred to as a “Statement of Interest,” said that “K-State is incorrect” and suggested the court deny the request that the suits be dismissed.
University officials were not available to comment Tuesday on the government statements — one for each student’s lawsuit. Officials from the two federal departments also were not available for comment.
In the statements, the federal departments say that “Title IX text, case law, regulations, and guidance clearly instruct that a university-recognized fraternity is an education activity.”
Their statements say that K-State policy acknowledges that sex discrimination that occurs under any of its programs or activities is covered by Title IX. Title IX is in place to assure that gender discrimination, including sexual harassment and sexual violence, does not interrupt a student’s ability to get an education.
“The continuing effects of a student-on-student rape, including the constant fear of exposure to one’s assailant, can render a student’s educational environment hostile,” the government filings said. “Thus, a school must respond to allegations of sexual assault in fraternity activities to determine if a hostile environment exists there or in any other education program or activity.”
The K-State suits are being handled by the Fierberg National Law Group in Washington, D.C., which specializes in campus-related rape cases.
In a document filed with the court Friday, the Fierberg National Law Group said that “despite outcry from the student body and student leaders, including the presidents of every K-State fraternity, the University steadfastly stands by its ‘off-campus, not our problem’ position.”
The law group also makes note of federal guidance on Title IX that in 2011 told universities that Title IX required them to investigate complaints of off-campus sexual violence against students. That same guidance made specific mention of off-campus frat houses.
Campus sexual assaults — and universities’ responses — have been pushed to the forefront nationwide in recent years.
Two lawsuits were filed recently by two female athletes against the University of Kansas for how it responded to reports of alleged rapes that occurred in a dormitory on the Lawrence campus.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has more than 200 Title IX investigations open at colleges and universities examining claims that the schools mishandled sexual assault cases. Two of those cases came out of KU. One involves Missouri University of Science and Technology, and another involves William Jewell College, in Liberty.
K-State currently is under federal investigation for how it handled four different Title IX cases, including the rape complaints from Weckhorst and Farmer.
In her suit, Weckhorst says that as a K-State freshman she was raped multiple times by two K-State students during an April 26, 2014, fraternity event and later the same evening at a frat house. The suit says Weckhorst was intoxicated, confused and at one point blacked out.
The Farmer suit says she was raped by an unknown K-State student at a frat house on March 6, 2015, after a night of partying with friends. Farmer became very intoxicated, the suit says, and sometime after 2 a.m. went with an old high school friend to his fraternity house.
There, according to the suit, she was left alone in his fraternity room and allegedly raped by another K-State student and fraternity member who had been hiding in a closet.
Her case is still under investigation by Riley County police. County prosecutors, however, are not pursuing the Weckhorst rape claim.