WASHINGTON — At some of the nation’s largest universities, the vast majority of sexual assaults take place not in dorm rooms or anywhere else on school property but in the neighbourhoods beyond campus boundaries, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.
But the schools’ obligation to investigate and respond to those off-campus attacks could be dramatically reduced by the Education Department’s proposed overhaul of campus sexual assault rules. And that’s alarmed advocacy groups and school officials who say it would strip students of important protections in the areas where most of them live.
At the University of Texas in Austin, officials have received 58 reports of sexual assaults on campus grounds since the fall of 2014 while fielding 237 involving private apartments, houses and other areas outside campus, according to the data obtained through public records requests. Another 160 reports didn’t include locations.
“The majority of our students are just not in proximity to campus, and a lot of things happen when they’re not on campus,” said Krista Anderson, the university’s Title IX co-ordinator. Of the school’s 51,000 students, she said, only about 18 per cent live in campus housing.
For now, federal guidelines urge colleges to take action against any sexual misconduct that disrupts a student’s education, regardless of where it took place.
But in its proposed rule, the department says schools should be required to address sexual misconduct only if it occurs within their “programs or activities,” a designation that would exclude many cases off campus.
The proposal is included in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ revision of Obama-era guidance on campus sexual assault, which officials say is unfairly skewed against those accused of assault and goes beyond the intended scope of Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination in education. Some colleges had complained that the Obama rules were too complex and could be overly burdensome.
The AP asked the nation’s 10 largest public universities for several years of data on the topic. Out of eight that provided data, five had more reports from off campus than on school property: The University of Texas, Texas A&M, Arizona State, Michigan State and the University of Central Florida.
At Texas A&M, for example, the number of sexual assaults reported from beyond campus since 2014 is twice the number on school property.
Leaders of some schools say the proposal appears to let them decide whether to handle cases beyond their borders, but conflicting language has led some to believe they would actually be barred from it.
One section says schools would be permitted to address cases outside their property, while another says schools would have to dismiss all complaints from outside their programs. Dozens of schools have asked the department for clarification.
“There is a concern that these regulations might strictly limit the jurisdiction of the university to conduct which occurs on campus,” said David Bunis, general counsel for Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a private school in Massachusetts.
Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said schools would be able to investigate cases outside their programs “at their discretion” but did not clarify the discrepancy. …read more