By Jenny Horn

Additional resources and full video recording of the town hall can be found at the bottom of this post

Equal Rights Amendment Coalition CEO & President Zakiya Thomas welcomed everyone to this month’s featured town hall regarding Title IX – discussing where this landmark legislation currently stands, and where we want to bring it today and in the future. Thomas thanked those who could join today to contribute to these important discussions in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX’s passing, and gave extra thanks to the day’s guest speakers in their efforts to ensure that Title IX is maintained and enforced in terms of both the letter and spirit of the law.

She continued on to exclaim that Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 has been a crucial mainstay in leveling the playing field for women and girls in education. It covers educational programs and institutions receiving federal funds, as well as the employment and treatment of students in K - 12 and higher education, and is administered by the U. S. Department of Education.

In recent years, many Title IX-related complaints have been made regarding student treatment issues, including but not limited to: 

Thomas stated that we wouldn’t be able to get to all of these issues today, but we look forward to the conversation that will follow. She then introduced the session speakers:

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Associate Professor of Sport Management and the Director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Lynchburg. She is a sport historian whose research focuses on gender-based policies in international sport, and is also affiliated with Athlete Ally, an ERA Coalition partner.

Ria Tabacco Mar is the Director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, where she oversees the ACLU’s women’s rights litigation. Ria has been recognized on The Root 100 annual list of the most influential African Americans ages 25 to 45 and as one of the Best LGBT Lawyers Under 40 by the National LGBT Bar Association. 

Kenyora Parham, MSW is the Executive Director of End Rape On Campus (EROC), which works to end campus sexual violence through direct support for survivors, prevention through education; and policy reform. Kenyora has served over the past decade working with youth and families, college students and administrators, and community and government leaders. 

Neena Chaudhry is Vice President and General Counsel, and Senior Advisor for Education at the National Women’s Law Center, where she provides in-house legal advice and representation to the NWLC, NWLC Action Fund, and NWLC Fund LLC, and works to protect the rights of women and girls to be free from sex discrimination in school. 

Thomas then initiated the town hall’s primary discussion, outlined below. 

What do you think is the unfinished business of Title IX?

Chaudhry kicked off the conversation by explaining that we’ve come a long way since Title IX was passed:

“I think we can agree that we wouldn’t be here today without Title IX since its very protections are what have largely afforded us the education and experiences that have led us as women here now – the law’s unfinished business today is in making sure that its promise is fulfilled.”

- Neena Chaudhry

Women and girls are still often seen as second-class citizens to their male counterparts in the school arena, their athletics still neglected, and their sexual harassment and assault reports still uninvestigated and unaddressed – the protections are there but they are not always enforced, and this is what needs to change today. 

Parham jumped in next to talk specifically about the Department of Education’s efforts and assertion just last month to sort of re-implement and enforce Title IX after it was stripped during previous years and newer regulations resolving this previous strip were delayed due to COVID-related circumstances. Parham explains that “the Department of Education has proposed new regulations with more specific parameters and definitions – for example, defining retaliation – in an effort to clarify the protections that are included and ought to be afforded by Title IX.” 

What have we done well with Title IX?

Mar starts off by saying that Title IX has really reshaped what it means to be a pregnant or parenting student, explaining that “schools used to force students to take pregnancy tests, expel students who were pregnant or force them into different, often isolated schooling environments, and today these actions aren't necessarily unthinkable, but they are certainly no longer typical.” She noted that it’s also worth situating that the government added to these protections in recognizing pregnancy discrimination as a type of sex-based discrimination when passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, so other laws around the original time of Title IX have also supplemented it in support and protections, though even Title IX itself was a bit ahead of its own time.

Pieper says plainly that Title IX has really successfully grown opportunities for women and girls in athletics as shown in the raw numbers of girls and women participating in sports both in school and at the professional level. Title IX still is not equitable and needs a lot of renovation to ensure protections are actually implemented and not just outlined, but the track it’s been on has still been very positive and successful overall, hopefully pointing to a consistent linear track of positive progress.

How would having the Equal Rights Amendment as the law of the land impact those kinds of decisions regarding students, pregnant individuals, across the board?

Parham exclaims that the implementation of the ERA would “clearly strengthen Title IX in ingraining those sorts of protections within the Constitution itself, and also speak to the enforcement of such equal protections. We would be able to really improve the future in ways we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Mar posed the idea that it would also be really interesting to see how Congress would respond and build off of the more explicit protections, saying “this would be an opportunity for us as a country to really scrutinize our laws and policies to propel us forward in even more equal protection and opportunities.”

A number of states have passed legislation that targets transgender students. How does Title IX fit into this scenario and how can we best use it to protect trans students?

Chaudhry asserts that “because courts have clarified that sex discrimination would include discrimination against varying gender identities and therefore trans individuals and students, it is clear that Title IX expands its explicit protections to safeguard trans students as well.” Unfortunately, this is one of the areas of Title IX that is grossly under implemented, and we need to do more to ensure equal opportunities and protections for these trans students. 

Mar added that some groups have tried to weaponize Title IX against trans students, so we need to prioritize making its language and these protections “even more explicit to cover exactly who Title IX should cover and protect.” We know we’re all protected in this space, but we need to expand this definition to protect students in more distressing circumstances. 

What are you or your organization working on now regarding Title IX legislation? How can the ERA Coalition support this work?

Pieper explains that she would like to ensure that future bills surrounding Title IX are “not carving out a special space just for sports to make an exception to the Title IX rules, as doing so would play a big part in weaponizing Title IX as we’ve previously discussed.” Paying close attention to how bills may try and work around Title IX will prove really important in the coming years.

Parham stresses the need to not focus too hard on individual identities and how they differ, but rather what makes school a safe place in general for all students but in respect to their differing identities. “Trans students, for example, deserve the same opportunities and safety in school as the rest of students, but this obviously is not met nor is it reality today and needs to be supplemented per their identity to provide better, more cohesive protections.” Additionally, ensuring that students are also at the center of this work as we progress will prove essential in moving protections forward through all levels of schooling and all levels of government. It’s important not to forget that students are at the center of this movement themselves, and we need to include them in striving towards change to actually make a tangible difference in their lives. 

Chaudhry built off of that, explaining that “while we’re focused on the regulations and rules that are being pushed forward in regards to trans students and otherwise, we have centered them within our discussion and arguments in explicit ways to learn their real experiences, and get these individual students justice and equality while simultaneously being able to represent larger pools of students all over the country.” 

Mar jumps in to stress to everyone on the call that we are all a part of this movement, and getting all of our voices heard is a big part of this process. She also wanted to touch on the issue of dress codes, noting that her work today is surrounding the takedown of sexist, nonsensical dress codes that force individuals to conform to what the school thinks their gender identity ought to be and how it ought to be portrayed. While most of this discussion thus far has not talked about dress codes, “it is still incredibly important to identify how a restriction that seems simple on its face can have such a disproportionate effect on those already in marginalized positions within the schooling atmosphere.”

What do you see as our greatest challenges with sex equality in education today?

Mar starts by discussing how Title IX captures a lot of intersectional challenges today, but it then also creates a lot of new avenues for groups to fight back against these protections. School-aged children are often so much more vulnerable, and it’s important to ensure that while we fight for their protections now, we’re also prepared to help them on the ground as they face those unique challenges as the movement propels forward.

Chaudhry asserts that we still need to be talking about Title IX in general – there is still an incredibly large population of people who just don’t know about these protections, and we need to continue to work to raise awareness and educate folks about the protections they are afforded, and the outlets that they can utilize if their protections are attacked in any way.

Pieper believes that the biggest challenge today will be regarding the harassment trans athletes face, and how we can reconcile these unique challenges within Title IX. There are a lot of attacks and gross abuse against these students and we need to provide them with far more support today than we have been previously. 

Parham talks about prevention education and the need to utilize this more in Title IX:

@herstoryk: Prevention education should be required across all levels of schooling to address attacks and discrimination at its root as opposed to only providing protections after harm and injustice is already done. #TitleIX

Moving forward, what should we be doing to protect students and ensure that Title IX fulfills its promise?

Parham explains that “depending on and with respect to what your role or position is within the larger framework of helping victims and survivors of sexual harassment and assault, the most important thing first is to believe people when they come to you and disclose. If anything, that’s probably the most critical thing you could do for a survivor who discloses a traumatic experience.” She continues on to elaborate that after someone has disclosed, it’s important to meet them where they stand to see what exactly would benefit them in the moment, and in how they choose to proceed in the future navigating through their experiences.

Pieper shares her thoughts next, asserting first that “sports are the same as every other educational activity and therefore should be treated as such, and preventing discrimination on the basis of sex should include the athletic atmosphere.” She also outlines that “changing the conversation for the better and towards progress in regards to trans athletes” is crucial to helping protect these kids when they’re at their most vulnerable. 

Chaudhry reiterates that really the best thing we can all do to protect our students is within our own respective communities and all the spaces we occupy, raising awareness within these spaces about Title IX – like asking if schools have Title IX coordinators, for instance – so we can ensure that the “nuts and bolts” of having the most comprehensive, cohesive protections for our students are in place. She concluded by explaining that “cultivating strength in numbers within our own communities and giving each other the tools we all need to ensure protections are our own levels will allow us to work our way up to larger support more easily and efficiently.”

Mar chimed in last, advocating for the amplification of the voices of our younger generations. “It’s amazing to see how the students today can recognize what's wrong and then be able to advocate for themselves."

@RiaTabaccoMar: So much progress can be made by allowing the space for more youth voices to address not just what we think is wrong but what they know and experience to be wrong. #TitleIX

Thomas transitions the discussion to answer questions directly from the town hall’s audience.

In regards to certain schools suggesting the use of “gender checks” to use certain restrooms, would Title IX help with this kind of discrimination

Mar immediately expresses distress regarding the situation involving “gender verification” practices that have been discussed in recent months. She explains that the notion of gender verification has a lot of roots in white supremacy as a tool often weaponized against Black women, and we know that in schools this practice would largely be used against Black girls and other young girls of color. Regardless, no one should be seeing the intimate parts of any children in school restrooms, and Title IX would absolutely not require gender verification, but it does prohibit this kind of policing.

Pieper jumps in, describing that this type of gender verification unfortunately commonly takes place in school athletics and has become a very real, scary problem for kids in sports in more recent years. In fact, there is quite a well-documented history of this practice being common in elite sports from about the 1950s-90s, and was utilized most commonly against women of color. According to Pieper, “per the history, there is no doubt in my mind that the same discrimination and same targets would be victim to these practices if they were allowed today.”

Regarding Title IX and reporting campus sexual assault and harassment, how prevalent of a problem are schools that have a reputation for hiding or undercounting such reports, and is there a better way to collect statistics on campus sexual assault and harassment?

Parham starts by saying that “particularly for Title IX coordinators, we are first and foremost obligated under Title IX to fulfill the obligations that include following up on reports made, whether that means an investigation is happening or the victim is reaching out for more support. We need to ensure we’re being proactive gender equality leaders, but what we see sometimes with Title IX coordinators is them having another role at the school that serves as a higher priority for them, creating a conflict of interest.” Parham explains that we need more people on the ground to provide prioritized, conflict-free care, where we aren’t overloading these coordinators with too large of a population of students. With respect to how we can do better in regards to the reports that are coming in, she says schools are federally required to disclose the statistics that happen on their campus on an annual basis, on October 1st of every year. 

Mar wanted to add to Parham’s discussion by further explaining the role of the Supreme Court in response to this question and Title IX. She validates the fears regarding the Supreme Court and what it will and will not uphold, saying the bad news is that recent Court decisions have discouraged private attorneys from taking on Title IX-related cases, making it more difficult for victims to work through the justice system. The good news, however, is “that Title IX is a statute, being more clear than other laws within the Constitution and also more easily amendable than the Constitution’s amendments. When people try to cut off Title IX at its knees, we can more readily go back to Congress and ask them to make even more clear the things that are protected within Title IX.”

How do we impact the election of qualified members of local school boards, those interested in public schools and equality?

Chrisi West with the ERA Coalition chimed in to answer this question, voicing that we probably need to “recruit more diverse candidates as a first step – candidates that represent communities that are often more targeted or less represented in the school leadership. The second half of that would, of course, be getting the word out and getting out to actually vote for these individuals.”

Chaudhry adds on that we should also probably be asking the types of questions we are here to those running in elections. “We need to know more about what those folks are thinking regarding these issues and Title IX because too often these topics are neglected and left behind.”

Thomas agrees, saying that “we need to pay attention to how they’re responding to these issues and hold them accountable to that.”

Mar continues to say she really appreciates this question as it's so important that people are paying attention to local school board elections because we know our opponents have been paying attention in this space for a long time. “It is often these local elections that are more heavily targeted for voter suppression or gerrymandering on precisely the theory that folks on our side are not paying attention.”

What can current college students do to support each other in allyship, more specifically in regards to the support and protection of trans students?

Parham starts by saying that End Rape on Campus has numerous resources for support on their website for different survivors that all students can utilize, and if students are looking for even more ways to get involved with advocacy work in this area, they are more than welcome to apply to our student caucus to get more actively involved today. 

Mar shouts out an amazing student-led organization called Know Your IX, who also has a plethora of fantastic resources on their website available for all to access.

Pieper reiterates the tools that Athlete Ally provides in support of trans athletes, allowing students to easily get involved through their website as well.

Are there any noted impacts or numbers on Title IX impacting students dropping out of K-12, and if so, what do those numbers look like?

Parham explains that she doesn’t know the numbers for K-12 offhand, but that Know Your IX did a report on the cost of reporting at the higher education level, which stated that about 40% of students drop out of education following their report to Title IX.

Equal Rights Amendment Coalition CEO & President Zakiya Thomas thanked the town hall’s attendees and speakers for participating in the discussion. “And remember to check back for our next town hall in the monthly series, supported by the Harnisch Foundation. We’ll see you next time!”

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