Insight

Jumping Hurdles toward the Finish Line

Forty-five years of progress with Title IX.

Title IX seeks to change cultural norms
MH

Meredith Aldridge, Colleen Welch, and Alicia Hall

July 25, 2017 11:17 AM

Although most female scholars and athletes today take for granted that they are equals in the classroom and on the field, such parity was far from certain in 1972. Forty-five years ago, Congress enacted groundbreaking legislation prohibiting sex discrimination in any “education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” A relatively unknown law at passage, Title IX catapulted to the forefront of the education realm—and society as a whole—following the social injustice struggles of the 1960s. At its core, Title IX sought to do much more than provide equal opportunities for female scholars. It sought to change cultural norms. The general public began to accept that some women would rather play basketball than take home economics classes, or they might prefer an engineering career to a nursing career.

As we celebrate the 45th anniversary of this momentous law, its evolution is evident. What used to be a primarily sports-focused law is now being used to combat sex discrimination on a broader scale. Supreme Court interpretations and guidance materials from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights have expanded the scope of Title IX. Schools are now required to have a dedicated Title IX coordinator to oversee compliance efforts. Not only does this designee ensure that Title IX requirements are met, but he or she must also coordinate any investigations of claimed violations. In recent years, the adequacy of the investigative process has been the subject of numerous lawsuits, typically centered on sexual harassment or sexual violence claims. As schools seek to keep up with the current state of Title IX, legal counsel is a must.

Title IX applies to all forms of sex discrimination in federally funded education.

For example, pregnant and parenting students must be afforded equal opportunities and support. Further, Title IX schools are prohibited from discriminating based on marital status, including making any pre-admission inquiry as to the marital status of applicants.

And Title IX doesn’t stop there. To ensure equal representation in educational opportunities, recipients are required to take affirmative steps to narrow gender gaps. Most prominently seen in STEM areas, schools are taking steps to equalize gender ratios in science, technology, engineering, and math courses. Identified by the National Women’s Law Center as the “next generation of Title IX,” schools are making calculated efforts to advance STEM studies and careers by training teachers about stereotypes and implicit biases, as well as hiring and retaining additional female STEM faculty. Progressive schools are purposefully and strategically improving the climate for females in STEM.

However, the Office for Civil Rights can only do so much. For Title IX to truly be effective, students and faculty must feel capable and comfortable identifying deficiencies and violations. Title IX prohibits retaliation against any student, teacher, or coach who files a complaint alleging a violation of Title IX or participates in the investigative process. In short, the educational institution must create a culture for reporting that is free from fear, intimidation, coercion, and harassment.

Title IX is an expansive law that has helped to level the playing field in federally funded educational programs. Despite these great strides, more must be done to address emerging issues. Sexual assault on college campuses has been a hot topic in recent years, as high-profile litigation has focused the spotlight on the policies—or lack thereof—to address such incidents. Online harassment must be taken seriously.

Schools must fairly balance the rights of victims with the rights of the accused. And schools must be committed to justice whether it comes from criminal courts or the school’s internal proceedings.

In this ever-changing climate, it is critical that schools seek legal guidance to ensure continued compliance with Title IX. Institutions must not only develop and enforce best practices, but they must also continuously monitor and evaluate Title IX. Retaining legal counsel to assist with compliance efforts should be incorporated into all schools’ risk avoidance discussions.

From pre-kindergarten to post-graduate studies, Title IX compliance is much more than a numbers game for male and female opportunities. We must continue to combat any form of sex discrimination that might push women out of educational programs. As we celebrate 45 years of progress, we must keep an eye on the finish line.

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Meredith Aldridge, Colleen Welch, and Alicia Hall are attorneys in the Jackson, Mississippi, office of Maron Marvel Bradley Anderson & Tardy LLC. Meredith, Colleen, and Alicia lead the firm’s efforts to assist schools as they navigate the complexities of Title IX compliance. They represent a portion of the firm’s diverse group of attorneys who are dedicated to leveraging technology and forward thinking to provide clients with a unique advantage in complex litigation. Maron Marvel Bradley Anderson & Tardy LLC is a nationally recognized law firm with attorneys located in 11 offices, in Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York. The firm represents public and private entities of all sizes and provides risk management, compliance, and litigation services across the board.

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