At major colleges, sexual assaults are more likely to happen off-campus

Washington • At some of the nation’s largest universities, the vast majority of sexual assaults take place not in dorm rooms or even on school property, but in the neighborhoods 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 an Education Department proposal that's included in its broader 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, the Austin campus has received 58 reports of sexual assault on campus grounds since fall 2014, while during the same period it fielded 237 in private apartments, houses and other areas outside campus, according to data obtained by The Associated Press 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 coordinator. Of the school's 51,000 students, she said, only about 18 percent 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 of all levels 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' rewrite 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 location of sexual assaults. 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.

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.

"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 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.

Since the proposal was issued in November, it has generated a flood of feedback from students, parents, schools, politicians and activists on both sides. A recent public comment period drew more than 104,000 responses. Tens of thousands of comments have been credited to student campaigns meant to inundate the agency with criticism.

In western Pennsylvania, for example, a local chapter of the National Organization for Women recently hosted an event on how to submit comments to the department.

Few points have drawn as much anger as the move to reduce schools' obligations off campus. In public comments, students said it would leave little recourse for those assaulted at parties, bars or other off-campus sites. Advocacy groups worry that fewer victims would report assaults.

"We think it's very dangerous," said Terri Poore, policy director at the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "There are several other very, very, disturbing issues, but this is absolutely among the worst aspects of the proposed rule."

Many colleges have raised their own concerns, especially at institutions that fear the rule would cut off their authority at campus boundaries.

Laurie Nichols, president of the University of Wyoming, told the Education Department that curbing schools' powers would simply push sexual violence off campus, to areas where offenders know they're beyond the school's reach.

Even supporters of the rule say it needs clarification, but they contend it's a step in the right direction. Cynthia Garrett, leader of Families Advocating for Campus Equality, a group that represents students accused of sexual misconduct, said schools should handle some off campus cases, but only within reason.

"I just think it has to be a practical consideration. Is this something where the school has any power over the property? Can they go there? Can they look at the evidence?" she said.

At the University of Florida, there was a roughly an even split between sexual assault cases on and off campus, according to the data obtained by the AP. Ohio State University had more cases on campus. The University of Maryland University College, which doesn't have residence halls and offers the majority of its classes online, says no sexual assaults have been reported in the last five years.

The Education Department is now reviewing public comments before it issues a final rule.

Anderson, the University of Texas official, said that although cases arising off campus can be complicated, the university will continue to investigate them unless it's explicitly forbidden.

“The complex cases are the ones that need our attention,” Anderson said. “We have a duty to address those and respond to it appropriately.”