K-State is sued by students who say the university refuses to investigate alleged frat house rapes

Filing suit against K-State are students Sara Weckhorst (left) of Pennsylvania and Tessa Farmer of Overland Park, who say the university failed to investigate their accusations of rape at fraternities.
Filing suit against K-State are students Sara Weckhorst (left) of Pennsylvania and Tessa Farmer of Overland Park, who say the university failed to investigate their accusations of rape at fraternities. The New York Times

Two Kansas State University students are suing the university, claiming it failed to investigate after the women reported being raped at campus-recognized fraternity houses.

In separate lawsuits filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Kansas, the women accuse the university of violating Title IX, the federal gender discrimination law that protects students against sexual violence and harassment.

The suits also accuse Kansas State of negligence in failing to warn and protect the women against a “foreseeably dangerous environment” at K-State and of falsely promoting Greek life on the Manhattan campus as “fun and safe.”

In both cases, the students reported rapes, which allegedly occurred at different fraternity houses, to the university. But according to the suits, the students were told that the school would not investigate in either case because the fraternity houses where the alleged rapes occurred were located off campus.

The suits take issue with that claim since the alleged rapes involved Kansas State students. The suit said that “under Title IX, schools … have an obligation to respond to student-on-student sexual harassment that initially occurred off school grounds … if a student files a complaint with the school.”

In a statement Wednesday, the university said it “does not discuss litigation matters in the media, nor do we publicly discuss individual reports of discrimination, including sexual violence.”

The statement also said “the university has a strong policy prohibiting discrimination, including sexual violence, and provides a multitude of resources and assistance to students and employees.”

Sara Weckhorst of Doylestown, Pa., and Tessa Farmer of Overland Park are seeking unspecified monetary damages and want the university to investigate their rape claims.

“They want the university held accountable and don’t want this to happen to other women,” said Cari Simon, the Washington, D.C., lawyer representing both women.

Their suits, Simon said, “join a growing chorus of students standing up for their rights under Title IX.”

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.

KU has said it does not comment on individual sexual assault investigations but noted that “it quickly takes action to support the person who came forward and work to investigate and resolve the matter.”

The Kansas State suits are being handled by the Fierberg National Law Group in Washington D.C., which specializes in campus-related rape cases. Simon questioned whether Kansas State has put off-campus fraternity houses off-limits when it comes to investigating reports that university students have been raped there.

In Weckhorst’s suit, she alleged 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 fraternity house was not named in the lawsuit. But Weckhorst’s lawyer said the alleged incident occurred at the Sigma Nu Fraternity house. At one point, the suit says, Weckhorst was taken by a fraternity member to what is called “the sleep room,” lined with beds, and was raped there.

The suit says more than a dozen students partying at the house witnessed the alleged rape, “some taking photographs and shared on social media.”

The suit says Weckhorst was intoxicated, confused and at one point blacked out.

The following day, Weckhorst went to the K-State Health Center for treatment and reported the assaults to the university Women’s Center, the Manhattan Rape Crisis Center and the K-State Affirmative Action Office. The suit says that after being told the university would not investigate, Weckhorst went to Riley County police.

Arthur Hoge, a lawyer for Sigma Nu, told The New York Times that a fraternity investigation of Weckhorst’s rape claim found that “no member of Sigma Nu was the alleged assailant, and no off-campus chapter event or party occurred on the day of the event.”

However, the university did sanction the fraternity for serving alcohol, the suit said.

In the second lawsuit, Farmer says she was raped by an unknown K-State student at a fraternity house on March 6, 2015, after a night of partying with friends. Farmer became very intoxicated, the suit says.

She was driven home about 2 a.m. But later that night she went with an old high school friend to his fraternity house, where according to the suit she was left alone in his frat room and allegedly raped by another K-State student and fraternity member who had been hiding in a closet.

The fraternity was not named in the suit, but Farmer’s lawyer said her client claims the rape happened at the Phi Delta Theta house by a member of that fraternity.

A spokesman for the fraternity could not be reached for comment. But Sean Wagner, chief operating officer of Phi Delta Theta’s national office, said in a statement to The New York Times that his office became aware of the allegations in February.

“An investigation occurred determining it was an isolated incident, and the person responsible was removed from memberhip,” Wagner said.

The suit says Farmer reported the assault immediately, first going to a hospital for treatment and then to Riley County police. Her case is still under investigation by police.

Prosecutors, however, are not pursuing the Weckhorst rape claim, Simon said.

“Unfortunately, prosecutors often decline cases that involve alcohol,” said Simon. “Prosecutors don’t have to take those cases, but schools, by law, are obligated to investigate reports of rape.”

Simon said that in addition to the suits, the university is under federal investigation by the Department of Education because of the way it has responded in these two reports of alleged rape.

She said her firm picks campus rape cases that are “significant” in the national movement to curb sexual violence on college campuses.

“This school made the call to ignore rape at fraternities,” Simon said. “Fraternities are a hotbed of sexual assault. If other schools follow K-State, we lose momentum” in the effort to stop rape on college campuses.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc