The Department of Justice and Department of Education recently weighed in on a Title IX case, arguing that a university can be liable under Title IX for failing to properly investigate off-campus conduct. Two students at Kansas State University (K-State) recently sued the university, arguing that its refusal to investigate their rapes at off-campus fraternities violated Title IX. K-State requested that the court dismiss the students’ cases, claiming it did not have an obligation under Title IX to investigate their rapes. K-State argued that it could not be liable under Title IX because the rapes occurred at off-campus fraternities. While the court is currently deciding K-State’s request, the federal government filed a “Statement of Interest” asking the court to deny the school’s motion. Any sexual violence that interferes with a student’s ability to pursue his or her education can be a violation of Title IX, the federal government contended, even if it does not occur on-campus.
Title IX prohibits discrimination of the basis of sex at any educational institution that receives federal financial assistance. A school can be held liable if it fails to properly address a students’ complaint of rape, sexual assault, or harassment by another student. By its plain language, Title IX reaches “any education program or activity,” and, as expressed in the government’s Statement, “a university-recognized fraternity is an education activity.”
The government’s position in this case is not new or novel, but rather reinforces schools’ obligations to its students. In 2011, the Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague Letter to schools in which it outlined their obligations under Title IX, specifically noting:
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 its 2014 guidance, the Department of Education reiterated that schools are required to process complaints of alleged sexual violence that occur off-campus.
In line with this position, courts often find that schools can be and are liable under Title IX when they fail to properly respond to complaints of off-campus student-on-student conduct. While off-campus fraternities seem like the most obvious target, Title IX liability may extend to study abroad programs, off-campus research projects, and class-related trips. Sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape are serious no matter where they occur, and schools and universities should make sure to take every appropriate step to ensure their students have access to an education free from the damaging effects of that conduct.
Correia & Puth represents students in Title IX claims against schools and universities that fail to properly respond to claims of sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and/or sexual assault. The very purpose behind Title IX is to ensure schools have effective procedures to both allow students to make these complaints and appropriately address them. Where studies suggest that one in five women are sexually assaulted during college (a statistic that could be worse if not for underreporting), students depend upon schools to take their complaints seriously. Title IX provides students with some measure of protection under the law. And that protection extends to discrimination, which includes sexual harassment, and/or sexual assault – irrespective of where it occurs – that alters a student’s access to the same education as his or her peers. The government’s position provides further encouragement for courts to safeguard these rights.