In the scholastic realm, discrimination based on sex involves more than encouraging girls to grow up to be teachers and boys to become doctors. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools, and without its provisions our academic (and career) landscapes might have looked less diverse today. However, the struggle for fair access to federally funded education is ongoing. After four decades and more than 20 amendments, related Supreme Court cases and other political dealings, Title IX has earned the moniker of “living law.”
Title IX is a refreshing kind of legal document. It is broad in effect and straightforward in language. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights explains that the title covers “(all) public and private elementary and secondary schools, school districts, colleges, and universities receiving any Federal funds.” So if any educational program receives government money, by law it cannot prevent people from participating in its services on the grounds of individual sexual biology, identity, orientation, or preference:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . .”
And there’s more concerned here than women’s athletics. Title IX ensures that Sue can go through business school with her sights leveled on a Fortune 500 CEO position, whether or not she ever plays volleyball. If Jack wants to pursue a nursing degree, no one can legally argue that boys (biological or otherwise) don’t belong behind a nurse’s desk. Male-identified students can use male-aligned restrooms and request feminine hygiene receptacles in the stalls without ridicule. Women who identify as lesbians have legal protection to play hockey with other women. Straight men can be presidents of ballet clubs. The schoolhouse doors must remain unlocked for everyone, regardless of stereotypes and social judgments.
Yet people can do worse things than laugh at each other or take an extra percentage point off their test scores. While campuses must stay open, they must also stay free of negative influence: “Under Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment or sexual violence, such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion.” The potential threat of being hurt, hindered, demeaned or objectified can keep students out of the classroom or clubhouse as readily as a locked door. As of 2011, there had been almost 4,000 reports of sexual battery and more than 800 reports of attempted and actual rape in American public high schools. Approximately 20 percent of college women (and nearly six percent of college men) will be sexually assaulted or the victims of attempted assault. Many such incidents are never reported, and survivors’ voices often go unheard. Title IX requires all schools to draft a clear policy against sex discrimination and publicize it broadly and continually. It is a crucial fortification in the fight to keep our schools safe as well as accessible.
The OCR stretches across 12 offices throughout the nation and has a headquarters in Washington, D.C. to ensure this equity in federally funded programs. Representatives came to the University of Idaho in February and held several conversational sessions with various student groups to review UI’s Title IX compliance, specifically regarding sexual misconduct issues. While direct OCR support is helpful, all schools are required to appoint and provide contact information for an officer who will monitor and facilitate Title IX compliance, complaints and related issues. Title IX Coordinator Dr. Carmen Suarez, alongside four deputy coordinators, works to cultivate and enforce an equitable environment at UI.
Like any policy, Title IX retains exceptions. The law must respect religious organizations’ rights to abide by their own tenets; undergraduate institutions that have had a policy from their inception to accept only people of one sex aren’t forced to mix their memberships; student-populated sororities and fraternities, boys’ and girls’ youth service groups like the Scouts or YMCA, and student training programs for military service can also retain their sex-based policies of membership. There are a few others, all similarly reasonable.
With such clearly delineated guidelines, sex-based discrimination can be easily identified and prosecuted. And educational institutions have certainly gained some ground in this area. Last year, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the percentages of men and women aged 25-29 who’d attained bachelor’s degrees by 1990 weren’t notably different; but the percentage of women had risen seven points above that for men by 2012. Further, there was a three percent rise in women’s favor for master’s degree attainment from 1995 to 2012. The National Collegiate Athletic Association reported a 14 percent, 21 percent and 14 percent upswing in the number of female athletes in Divisions I, II and III, respectively, between 2004 and 2010.
Last week, UI celebrated 40 years since the signing of the Conciliation Agreement. The document was signed in 1974 by UI President Ernest Hartung and nine members of a group appointed to investigate gender discrimination and other issues in the school. The agreement called for an affirmative action plan, back pay for employees who had experienced salary discrimination, equal starting salaries for all employees, and job analysis implementation. It affected positive changes for inclusivity in employment and student recruitment across several school offices and services.
Amid this progress, one of the only problems with Title IX concerns the practical outworking of the document’s provisions. Not every school employs a Title IX coordinator, despite the legal requirement. Many people don’t realize the protection Title IX affords them, or even that the title exists.
There are a lot of online resources people can use to educate themselves about Title IX. Contact Dr. Suarez and her team at UI, or get in touch with your school’s coordinator. Inform your school if you discover you don’t have one. Request a list of coordinators in your state. Get to know your rights, so you can better get on with your education. Let’s celebrate many more years of equitable treatment in schools together.