Kansas State University Can’t Dodge Title IX Lawsuit

Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas. (Chris Marshall)

(CN) – The 10th Circuit refused Monday to dismiss a lawsuit filed by two former students who claim officials at Kansas State University failed to investigate their sexual assaults that took place at two fraternity houses.

Sara Weckhorst and Tessa Farmer filed federal lawsuits in April 2016, alleging that the university refused to investigate their rapes at off-campus fraternity houses. The plaintiffs said Kansas State was in violation of Title IX, a regulation that bars universities from gender discrimination, since the accused rapists were also students at the university.

In its motion to dismiss, the university claimed it is not responsible for any investigations into sexual violence that occur off-campus, stating that it was beyond its jurisdiction. According to Kansas State’s policy, investigation into sexual violence is limited to incidents that occur on campus or “in the context of a University-sponsored program or activity.”

In previous court filings, the university argued that it does not have control over the activities of fraternities. U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson disagreed, siding with the plaintiffs’ arguments that the fraternities are only open to university students and they were promoted on the university’s website at the time.

Robinson said in her ruling she was “convinced that the fraternity is an ‘operation’ of the University, and that [Kansas State] has substantial control over student conduct within the fraternity.”

The university is tied for the third-most Title IX investigations in the country, along with Stanford University and Indiana University at Bloomington, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Only Princeton and Cornell have more.

In her March 2017 ruling, Robinson said the plaintiffs  “presented plausible allegations as to each element required to state a Title IX discrimination claim, including that KSU had substantial control over both the alleged assailants and the context of the alleged assaults, and that KSU’s alleged deliberate indifference made Plaintiff liable or vulnerable to further harassment or assaults.”

U.S. Circuit Judge David Ebel, writing for a three-person panel, upheld the federal court’s decision Monday. The panel said that the school’s failure to investigate the students accused of raping the two women made them “vulnerable” to sexual harassment from their assailants.

“Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that KSU’s deliberate indifference made each of them ‘vulnerable to’ sexual harassment by allowing their student-assailants—unchecked and without the school investigating—to continue attending KSU along with Plaintiffs,” Ebel wrote in the 27-page ruling. “This, as Plaintiffs adequately allege, caused them to withdraw from participating in the educational opportunities offered by KSU.”

A spokeswoman for the university said they “respectfully disagree” with the ruling and are committed to complying with anti-discrimination laws.

“The court’s narrow legal ruling did not determine the facts of the case or that the university committed any error,” said Cindy Hollingsworth, executive director of the university’s news and communications services. “K-State cares about its students and always provides a wealth of support. The university offered numerous resources and support to these plaintiffs, who both went on to graduate from K-State.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Cari Simon, with The Fierberg National Law Group, did not immediately return a call for comment.

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