Title IX issues that start in colleges and universities inevitably make their way to K-12 schools, opening society’s eyes to the pervasiveness of the problem at all ages. A year-long investigation by Associated Press reporters provides the latest example — a “hidden horror” of 17,000 sexual assaults by students against other students in grades K-12 over a four-year period. Too often in these cases, students and their parents must rely on Title IX to amplify their cries for help.
Student sexual assaults have been the top headline-grabbing Title IX complaint in higher education over the past 6 years or so. The Office for Civil Rights currently is investigating 319 complaints of sexual violence at 228 colleges and universities. Films like The Hunting Ground and efforts by women’s advocates continue to focus attention on the problem, like former Vice President Joe Biden’s strongly worded speech recently at George Mason University.
While the 17,000 sexual assault reports in the AP article affect a tiny percentage of the 50 million students in public K-12 schools, they’re likely the tip of the iceberg. No federal laws require K-12 schools to track and report sexual violence (unlike requirements for colleges), and state requirements vary. The AP reporters only looked at the most severe forms of sexual violence, which often got mischaracterized as bullying, hazing, or consensual activity by school officials. Sexual violence against children, as against adults, often goes unreported for a myriad of reasons.
Still, the 17,000 cases of student-on-student sexual violence in K-12 grades dispel the public misperception that adults are the ones most likely to sexually assault students at school. For every report of sexual violence by an adult against a student at school there were seven reports of students attacking students, beginning as early as ages 5 and 6 and increasing in frequency up to about age 14.
Sometimes, Title IX issues erupt in K-12 grades before or at the same time as in higher education. Athletically talented girls and their fathers began challenging schools’ sports programs in Title IX’s early years in the 1970s around the same time that older students were pushing athletic programs in colleges and universities to change. Today’s other high-profile Title IX issue — deciding where transgender students can use the bathroom and change their gym clothes — has reached prominence mainly through conflicts in elementary, middle, and high schools (though decades of struggles by transgender adults and the LGBT community preceded them).
More often, people have had to come to terms with sex discrimination against adults before they can see it as a problem across society, and gradually root out its underpinnings.
Title IX came about because women like Bernice Sandler got fed up with being shut out of higher education and graduate schools, stifling their training and their careers. Why shouldn’t women be professors, doctors, lawyers, and engineers? Once Title IX passed in 1972, strong activists like Holly Knox and her Project on Equal Education Rights leveraged it to help K-12 students bust out of sex-role stereotyping by teachers and administrators. Why shouldn’t girls take math or science or shop, or boys take typing or home economics? Today, we take for granted that boys and girls and women and men should be able to pursue any educational topic, any career, and equitable athletic opportunities.
Issues of teachers or staff sexually harassing or assaulting students first took the Title IX spotlight in higher education, with students like Ann Olivarius and Pamela Price forcing Yale University to deal with it in the late 1970s. It wasn’t too long before high school and younger students and their parents found refuge in Title IX from the same problems, with cases like that of 10th-grader Christine Franklin going all the way to the Supreme Court. Today, we take for granted that adults should be prevented from sexually attacking or harassing children at school, though it’s still difficult to prove “deliberate indifference” when administrators don’t do enough to address the problem — the legal litmus test for making schools pay for their lack of action.
The common question in these cases is whether or not education administrators comply with Title IX’s requirements to prevent and deal with sex discrimination. As a 2015 report from the non-profit group Equal Rights Advocates points out, too many schools still don’t comply even with basics that have been on the books for 45 years, like having an identified Title IX coordinator, written non-discrimination policies, grievance procedures, and trained staff who know how to respond to complaints of sex discrimination.
The ongoing controversies about student-on-student sexual assaults in higher education, and the 17,000 sexual attacks by K-12 students against other students reported by the Associated Press, suggest that too many schools are indifferent to the problem, deliberately or not. This is a time of reckoning in our society, a time to accept that the attitudes leading to sexual violence are common and get learned very early, and we need early, widespread educational strategies to counter them. Title IX, once again, is helping people realize that this is a deeper cultural issue, not just individual cases.