Happy birthday, Title IX! (from some of us)

Title IX is 45 years old this month! Imagine having your logic, your morality, and even your right to exist constantly being questioned for 45 years — essentially, what most women encounter in overt or subtle ways in our sexist society. You’d be tired of this nonsense by now, right? That’s what Title IX has faced since Congress passed it and President Nixon signed it on June 23, 1972. Fortunately, enough people understand the need to prohibit sex discrimination in education and have benefited from Title IX, giving this law the strength to persist.

Candace Parker shoots over Sylvia Fowles in the 2008 NCAA Women’s Basketball Division 1 championship. (Courtesy blueag9/Wikimedia/CreativeCommons)

Compare the muscles and skills of today’s female student athletes with those in the 1970s or before, and you’ve got a visual representation of Title IX’s success in opening sports opportunities in educational institutions to girls and young women over the last 45 years. Millions more females play sports today compared with before Title IX, and they start learning them at younger ages. That’s one reason why U.S. female athletes won more medals at the 2016 Olympics than U.S. men. Title IX changed athletics.

But wait — the job’s not finished. Sex discrimination (of all kinds) accounted for nearly half (46%) of all complaints to the Office for Civil Rights in 2016, helping drive a record-high 16,720 complaints of discrimination — a 60% increase over the previous year. Most of the sex discrimination complaints focused on athletics (6,251, or 81% of Title IX complaints) — nearly 10 times as many compared with any other topic in sex discrimination. After 45 years, do people really not understand that it’s against the law (and not fair) to give a high school boys’ baseball team a well-groomed field with state-of-the-art facilities while making the girls’ softball team play on a scraggly, rutted field with damaged fences and no lighting? (That’s a real example you’ll find in the Office for Civil Rights 2016 annual report.) Or do they not care? You can bet the girls who complained care.

Most of the media coverage in recent years has focused on the second-most-common type of Title IX complaint, for sexual or gender harassment or violence (673 complaints, 9% of the total). There’s good reason for that — this is the fastest-growing subcategory of sex discrimination cases. Complaints to the Office for Civil Rights about sexual violence increased by 277% for K-12 grade levels and by 831% for higher education since 2011. One school district failed to protect a girl before or after a group of boys sexually assaulted her in the boys’ locker room. The district compounded the injury by sending a notice home to parents claiming that the incident, as reported to police, was false. The school district serves 125,000 students yet had no Title IX coordinator, even though every federally funded educational institution has been required to have a Title IX coordinator since its regulations were finalized in 1975. Can anyone seriously claim that 42 years isn’t enough time to comply with a well-known law? Or do they not care?

Catherine Lhamon (right), then director of the Office for Civil Rights, at a middle school visit in 2014. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Education via Flickr)

Under the new Trump Administration, the Office for Civil Rights released a recent internal memo designed to scale back the scope of investigations. You can read a nuanced analysis of that move on the excellent Title IX Blog. Any pulling back on enforcement of civil rights worries some observers. Historically, Republican administrations tend to scale back or abandon civil rights enforcement compared with Democratic administrations, and the numbers of people currently asking for help are staggering.  At colleges and universities alone, the Office for Civil Rights had 337 active sexual-violence investigations at 236 institutions as of June 20, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education Title IX Tracker. And remember, there are far more complaints about athletics, plus other types of sex discrimination.

Count the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights among the concerned. This week it announced a two-year assessment of federal civil rights enforcement. Heading the Commission is Catherine Lhamon, who until January led the Office for Civil Rights in the Obama Administration. President Obama appointed her to the Commission before leaving office, giving her a six-year, independent term in which to monitor the government’s dealings without the risk of being fired by the current President.

The Trump Administration’s proposed budget includes a 7% cut in staff for the Office for Civil Rights (46 full-time positions), the Commission announcement notes. That’s on top of an 8% loss in staff during Obama’s eight-year tenure, during which the number of civil rights complaints increased 170%. “These proposed cuts are particularly troubling in light of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ repeated refusal in Congressional testimony and other public statements to commit that the Department would enforce federal civil rights laws,” Lhamon’s Commission states.

So, happy birthday, Title IX. You’re still ignored or misunderstood by too many, and you’re still desperately needed. You’ve helped countless women become students and professors, athletes and lawyers, engineers or technicians, plus much more. You have amplified students’ voices when they demand a stop to sexual harassment and assault, so they cannot be ignored. You’re 45 now — middle-aged — which means you’re just hitting your stride on the long, twisted road ahead. You’re still under attack, but many are with you.

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