In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed into law Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which holds that “no person … 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.” The law prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination against students (male, female, transgender, pregnant and parenting) and requires full gender equity in both coeducational and single-sex learning environments — both private and public institutions included.
The applications of Title IX are numerous.
In the case of athletics, Title IX protects students by requiring schools to safeguard the rights and well-being of its female athletes, the historically underrepresented gender within sports. This is done through the establishment of safety guidelines that do not discriminate on the basis of sex as well as equal distribution and funding of sports equipment.
In the case of hazing, bullying or cyberbullying, which often involve words or actions of sexual nature that endanger minority students, Title IX requires schools to assume the responsibility of seeking out the source of hostility and pursuing all means necessary to restore the safety of the environment.
And in the case of LGBTQI+ students’ protection, Title IX defines gender on the basis of an individual’s self-conception of gender identity and not the gender assigned at birth. By this definition, LGBTQI+ students have the same rights as other students under Title IX to accommodations, to a prompt and equitable complaint process and to be free from retaliation. Although much of this protection also extends to transgender students, in 2017, the Department of Education under the current presidential administration explicitly stated that it will no longer process complaints from transgender students regarding access to bathroom and locker-room facilities.
Indeed, Title IX has faced much backlash in recent years. Controversy, ignorance and scrutiny surround a law whose purpose is to ensure gender equality in a school setting. The following stories attempt to give some clarity to this law. For a parent, a student and an administrator, is Title IX worth it?
Tuesday, September 15, 2015.
It was a typical family night. Abigail, a mom of two, sat at the dinner table with her oldest daughter by her side. The two were conversing about each other’s days — how senior year was going so far, what the kids were doing — when the conversation came to an abrupt stop, and her daughter uttered the three words that would forever change the course of Abigail’s life.
“I was raped.”
Reminiscing about that day four years later, Abigail describes the moment when her daughter confided her rape experience as the catalyst for “years of hell.” It was as if a bomb had detonated in the family, permanently damaging the close mother-daughter ties that Abigail had held so closely to her heart and cherished.
Abigail’s husband, now her divorcee, was asleep when this conversation occurred. When he found out the next night on Wednesday, the family rushed to the Silicon Valley Medical Center to order a rape kit test. The eight-hour-long medical exam confirmed bruising and internal injuries consistent with the daughter’s account: the rape had occurred on Saturday, September 12, at a high school off-campus party containing alcohol, pills and other mind-altering substances.
It was committed by a fellow student at the high school attended by Abigail’s daughter, and as such, fell under the realm of Title IX. Under Title IX, all schools must address sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape case complaints directly and promptly. Schools must have a policy against sex discrimination, a Title IX Coordinator who oversees all sexual harassment complaints and they must conduct an investigation into the victim’s complaints even if the victim doesn’t press charges. The purpose of these policies is to ensure that each student’s safety is protected.
However, Abigail learned that schools have these Title IX obligations months after the rape had occurred. In that period of time, she had already taken action on her own — she had researched the school’s policies, engaged in dialogue with the administration in charge and called her legal sources to learn what steps to take next. It is during one of her calls that she discovered the “missing piece” to the aftermath of her daughter’s rape.
“Something just didn’t make any sense to me, so I ended up calling this Legal Hotline,” Abigail said. “One of those guys emailed me back and we talked over the phone and he said ‘Tell me, have they done an investigation?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if they did or not’ [to which] he replied ‘Well, they obviously didn’t because you would know if they did, since that’s part of their obligation to conduct an investigation and keep you informed.’”
Upon learning of Title IX and the responsibilities it extended to schools, Abigail contacted the school principal and the district Superintendent only to find out that they had no Title IX coordinator in place and were in no position to pursue a school-led investigation. This ignorance and inaction on the school’s part frustrated Abigail deeply — and understandably so, given that her daughter’s Title IX rights were violated repeatedly.
For instance, following a complaint, the school must use all means necessary to restore a hostile environment to one that is safe for the victim. In this case, this meant removing the rapist from the victim’s vicinity. The school, however, did not do this, and Abigail’s daughter not only withdrew from school events such as football games, but she also missed her graduation ceremony.
“This was a really hard time to navigate as a family,” Abigail said. “I mean, it was just heartbreaking as a mother to sit at home when your baby is supposed to walk up the ramp and be graduating with the rest of her friends.”
The daily struggles both Abigail and her daughter endured as a result of the incident had heavy impacts on their family dynamic. Abigail and her daughter grew further apart, her daugher imparting much of the blame onto her mother. Abigail and her husband had already been deliberating divorce, but the rape greatly quickened the proceedings. To this day, she and her daughter don’t talk about what happened in September; it is an “off-limits topic.”
Abigail attributes much of this misery to the school’s inability to follow through on its Title IX responsibilities and instead shift the responsibility upon the victim’s family.
“Trauma is just really, really damaging to a family,” Abigail said. “And it’s not something that anybody really considers, and the ripple effects are really, really hard to predict. And if the school had done what they were supposed to do from the beginning, then just a whole lot of trauma could have been avoided.”
Thus, from a parent point of view, Abigail recognizes Title IX as a healer of families, a support mothers and fathers can count on when it is implemented correctly.
For senior Kaitlyn Zou, this piece of legislation meant that she was able to do what she always wanted to do — play football. One day, after watching the National Football League in her spare time, she decided that she was going to pursue the sport. It looked fun, she thought.
“It’s kind of funny because I didn’t know what to expect,” Zou said. “I didn’t know for sure they were going to accept me.”
To Zou, Title IX means that regardless of what gender a student is, they have equal opportunity in pursuing academic or athletic events. She has rarely been faced with discrimination on the basis of gender during her time on the football team. For many football teams, teasing is not uncommon, and the MVHS team is no exception, but Zou says that she was never made fun of for being a girl on the team.
On her journey, she received help from some staff, including MVHS counselor Clay Stiver and her coaches Cody Owens and Ceazar Agront, but not much from her parents or friends. However, this did not deter her from playing football. Although she would’ve liked to have the support of her family and close friends, she says that the coaches have helped her through the three years that she’s been on the team. It’s also helpful that they do not single her out because of her gender to make her feel like a part of the team.
“[The coaches] treat me like any other player,” Zou said. “Nobody really calls you out. I feel like being extra nice or treating me like I’m special would make me feel more excluded.”
Although Zou will always hold football close to her heart, she plans to join other sports in college, like softball. She believes that as the competitiveness of sports like football increase as she moves to the college level, and it would be harder for her to play among men.
As she reflects on her journey in football, Zou had some words of advice for others who would want to take the same path she did in high school.
“If you want to play football or if you have a goal and only you see it for yourself, just go after it,” Zou said. “You will probably gain support along the way but at first you have to believe in yourself and you can’t depend on other people for support.”