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What to Do About Title IX

The law is large and complex. Here's how to bring your K-12 school into compliance with Title IX regulations — and keep it there

December 14, 2018
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Despite their legal obligation, many elementary and high schools around the country still haven’t taken steps to comply with Title IX — the federal civil rights law, enacted in 1972, that bars discrimination based on gender in any education program or activity that receives federal financial assistance. Instead, schools often wait to develop protocol until it’s too late and lawsuits are in motion.

But with the average case costing schools $200,000, school leaders have plenty of incentive to ensure that they are compliant with Title IX, says William Howe — not just because it will potentially save money down the road, of course, but because it’s the right thing to do. Howe, former state Title IX coordinator for Connecticut who continues to train educators today, adds, “Some schools are ignoring it, but a lot of educators are just unaware.”

Many educators understand that Title IX requires them to provide equal opportunity to engage in sports, for instance, but they may not know that it is a broad law that also includes any discrimination based on gender identity, as well as sexual assault, harassment, and bullying.

Part of the problem, says Howe, is that Title IX compliance often needs to be pushed by school leadership, but with frequent changes in staff and superintendents, it can be difficult to make strides in bringing programs into compliance with the law. Add in the mixed messages often coming from the federal government about the law, and it’s easy to see how schools can lack initiative to take steps toward Title IX compliance. Newly proposed guidelines by the US Department of Education — an attempt to further clarify sexual harassment and the process of reporting and investigating incidents in schools — have only seemed to add to the confusion and debate, raising concerns among some advocates that students may be less inclined to come forward, even as a new emphasis on due process has been welcomed by others.

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    Title IX compliance often needs to be pushed by school leadership, but with frequent changes in staff and superintendents, it can be difficult to make strides on bringing programs into compliance with the law.

    R. Shep Melnick, a professor at Boston College and author of The Transformation of Title IX: Regulating Gender Equality in Education, doesn’t see the proposed regulations as having huge impact on K–12 schools, but he does consider the 60-day commentary period on the proposed guidelines to be an opportunity for educators to be heard, perhaps especially on the issue of whether elementary and secondary schools should have separate guidelines from colleges and universities. “I tend to think this might be very useful,” Melnick says. “There is more of an effort to try to distinguish between the two situations in these proposals.”

    But regardless of the nuance happening at the federal level, Neena Chaudhry, director of education and senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, says it remains crucial for K-12 schools to address Title IX now. “Regardless of what the Department of Education says, the law and court is clear on this,” Chaudhry says. “Title IX covers a lot, and you have to have policies in place … but what schools are not doing is a lot. The goal is to not have any student discriminated against based on sex or gender identity.”

    Chaudhry and Howe offer advice on how schools and districts can come into compliance with Title IX — and stay there.

    • Make sure you have the right Title IX coordinator in every school. Though the law requires a coordinator at the state level and in each school district, having a point person for Title IX in your school is a worthwhile effort. This person needs to be well-versed in the law and must undergo regular training. But it can’t and shouldn’t be just anyone, says Howe, who maintains that schools often appoint the wrong person to this important role. He suggests that the Title IX coordinator be someone who can be unbiased and advocate for parents and students — not necessarily the school’s business manager or human resource manager, as is often the case. “It’s expedient to have an office person, but they are not always an educator,” he says, stressing that the coordinator should be familiar with IEPs and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Ideally, it gets inherited into a position like the director of special education or a social worker. But sometimes it’s selected at random or someone will volunteer. I’d rather see a Title IX coordinator like an administrative assistant who is sincere, willing to do it, and will enforce the law.”
    • Everyone in the school needs to know the law. Title IX is an old law but few people actually seem to understand how broad it is. It covers anything that constitutes discrimination based on sex or gender identity, ranging from athletics to sexual assault/harassment to bullying to sexual orientation to equity and everything in between. “Most people do not know and most who say they do know think it has to do with basketball,” Howe says. It's more than sports, and “it’s more than just harassment," he says. "Are we encouraging girls to take more STEM and technology classes? Are all the beauty classes full of girls and the auto mechanic classes full of boys? … It’s about jobs. And also [about] the sex orientation piece and transgender students. It’s big and complicated.”
    • Integrate Title IX training as part of your annual development among staff. Even if your school has a Title IX coordinator, one person cannot be aware of everything happening at school. All staff, from administrators to teachers, are important eyes and ears in the school community and need to know the law, the school’s policies and procedures, and how to respond appropriately. Depending on the size of your school, consider seeking free training materials online or contact your state Title IX coordinator to see what options are available for training in your area.
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    "It’s not just about policies and procedures,” Neena Chaudhry says. It's about your response and your follow-up — and it's also about creating a school culture based in respect and care for one another.

    • Don’t forget to talk to the students too. The children at school also need to know about the discrimination law and what it means, at age-appropriate levels, ranging from "good touch/bad touch" for young children all the way to rape and violence for high school-aged children. “We’re talking about kids’ lives,” Howe says. “A good school resource officer can go and explain this to all the students. If you can’t find someone within the school system to do it for free, then some school districts will hire consultants for this work.”
    • Document everything, including all efforts you make as a school. It’s important to have documentation of trainings, along with policies and procedures, so that if legal challenges arise somewhere down the line, your past efforts are readily available, Howe advises. Include non-discrimination statements in all materials published by the school. The law requires a non-discrimination statement in all official school publications, like the school newspaper, continuing education materials, catalogues, summer school flyers, and the school website. The contact information for the Title IX coordinator should be printed in official publications as well.
    • Let the community know how to file a complaint or grievance. The law requires that a complaint procedure be in place and communicated to parents and students through the student handbook and in the employee handbook. Make sure that someone is also trained to respond to complaints and investigate properly. It is not enough to wait for the police to conduct an investigation, Chaudhry reminds. Schools are still responsible to respond to incidents and provide a safe space for all children within the school, whether an alleged violation of Title IX took place on school grounds or not. This includes incidents that occur on social media, she says.
    • Remember, this isn’t only about a law, but about the school’s culture. "It’s not just about policies and procedures,” Chaudhry says. “It’s how to respond, keeping up with it, and making sure that it’s going well.” For that reason, school leaders, educators, parents, and students need to work together to keep their eyes and ears open and create a culture around the law — a culture based in respect and care for one another.
    • If you are not sure what your school is doing, then ask. If you are a parent or teacher, begin by calling your local school and asking who the Title IX coordinator is. If you don’t receive a response or there doesn’t seem to be anyone in that position, Howe recommends reaching out to the superintendent in your district to ask for more information or to share concerns. Howe recommends a constructive approach — telling the superintendent that you like the district but that it’s important to make sure that laws are being followed for students’ protection. Then ask the district to put a plan together. If nothing happens, then perhaps you can file a complaint or notify the press, but Howe recommends giving the superintendent a chance to fix the problem, because often they are also unaware.
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    Part of a special series about preventing sexual harassment at school. Read the whole series.

    Illustration by Wilhelmina Peragine

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