A survey of Title IX coordinators reveals a need for more visibility, clarity, and training.
With growing public attention to the issues of sexual assault and discrimination throughout the U.S., along with recent reports of widespread sexual abuse in some school districts (e.g., Jackson et al., 2018), many educators may be wondering what tools are available to address such issues. They would do well to begin with Title IX, which states that,
No person in the United States 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. (Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 C.F.R. )
Title IX has been used numerous times, over four and a half decades, to fight sexual harassment (Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 1999; Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 1992), sex stereotyping (Theno v. Tonganoxie Unified School Dist. No. 464, 2005), homophobic harassment (Montgomery v. Independent School District No. 709, 2000; Ray v. Antioch Unified School District, 2000), and the exclusion of transgender students from school life (G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 2016; Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District, 2017).
Still, though, while Title IX’s language may seem perfectly clear, its interpretation, application, and enforcement haven’t always been smooth and straightforward. Because the law has been given varying levels of support under different presidential administrations (Stromquist, 2013), school administrators and board members often view it as an unfunded mandate, which makes many of them reluctant to assign a line in their already constrained budgets to Title IX training and instructional materials.
Further, some districts have overlooked their responsibilities altogether. Whatever the level of funding they choose to allocate to Title IX, all school districts are required at least to appoint a Title IX coordinator. However, evidence suggests that many school systems have failed even to meet this requirement, or they’ve appointed individuals who lack the expertise and support needed to fulfill the role effectively (Equal Rights Advocates, 2015; Meyer et al., 2018).
As we argue below, this seriously undermines the effectiveness of the law. To safeguard all of our students in the long term, school districts must find ways to direct more substantial funding and resources to hiring, training, and supporting Title IX coordinators.
Challenges for Title IX coordinators and school districts
As we reported in a recently published study (Meyer et al., 2018), our team interviewed Title IX coordinators in districts in California and Colorado and identified four main challenges facing school districts and communities that want to leverage Title IX more effectively to address issues of sex discrimination in their schools. Title IX coordinators, respondents told us, 1) are difficult to find, 2) had ambiguous or overly broad job descriptions and duties, 3) had insufficient training and education, and 4) didn’t understand how their role could support transgender students.
One of the first challenges we encountered was simply to identify the Title IX coordinators working in the 118 school districts in the two states. Often, we could not find this information listed on district websites, and when we reached them by phone, central office personnel could not readily provide it. Many of our initial contacts told us “We don’t get Title IX funding” or “We don’t have those issues here” or “We don’t have a Title IX coordinator.”
When we were able to connect to Title IX coordinators and ask them to describe their job duties, the majority of them explained that their Title IX work amounted to just a small part of their role, accounting for very little of their time — less than 1%, most told us. As one coordinator said, “Title IX coordinator is one of several hats, a very small hat.” Several respondents noted that they didn’t even learn it was their part of their job until they’d been in the position for several months. “I don’t think I even knew I was the Title IX coordinator until I had been here probably a year,” one told us. “I went, oh, really, that falls under me?”
Many school districts are falling far short of their legal and ethical responsibilities to provide students and staff an environment free from discrimination.
We asked respondents also to describe the training they were given to support this work, and they said they generally relied on district lawyers, personal networks, or Google to help them when issues arose. One person stated, “If it was a question about a tricky case, I called my friend in my former district and asked her advice. If it’s trickier than just advice, I’d call our district’s lawyers.”
Our interviews were conducted after the Obama-era guidance on supporting transgender students in schools had been issued (Lhamon & Gupta, 2016) and before the Trump administration’s rescinding of this guidance document. However, several participants did not mention transgender students at all without prompting, and others noted that because they worked in human resources, they did not deal with student issues (which raises the question of why they were assigned to Title IX support). Two respondents told us that they tended to address an issue only “as it bubbles up” or “because it’s in the news.” Two others mentioned handling requests related to bathroom access (a common issue for transgender students) but did not describe them as Title IX issues.
Recommendations for policy and practice
We recognize that school district administrators often have very complex jobs with significant demands placed on their time. Our goal is not to judge committed professionals but to provide information and recommendations that may empower districts and community members to prioritize the important work that falls under Title IX coordinator duties and provide the support these professionals need. We offer the following recommendations for changes to policy and practice at the federal, district, and individual level.
Office for Civil Rights
Because Title IX is a federal law, support from the federal level is required. One area where the OCR can be especially helpful is in developing a funding mandate to increase the kinds of resources (videos, webinars, regional conferences, etc.) available to educate Title IX coordinators. For example, newly appointed coordinators could benefit from free mandatory webinars to acclimate themselves to their new role, and local and regional networks could help both new and experienced coordinators share experiences and knowledge with others in these roles.
In addition, as a federal department, the OCR plays an important role in ensuring that Title IX programs are implemented appropriately. One way to do this is by working in tandem with other Title and federal programs (Title I, II, III, etc.) to deliver a more cohesive message across services. For example, to determine whether districts are in compliance, the department should systematically audit randomly selected districts in all 50 states each year to verify that districts have a publicly named Title IX coordinator. To assist the public in reporting concerns, the department could provide a searchable database of Title IX coordinators.
School district leaders
Human resources officers should review and revise their Title IX coordinator job descriptions periodically to ensure compliance with the law. These job descriptions must be designed in a way that allows coordinators to complete all of their core responsibilities, give and receive training for themselves and staff and faculty, disseminate the policy, and attend to monitoring compliance and grievance procedures. Superintendents should allocate time and resources to ensure that Title IX coordinators can design and lead prevention and education activities to address issues of sex-based discrimination in schools.
When appointing a new Title IX coordinator, districts should ensure that person is aware of what the role entails.
When students, families, or staff members search their district website, it should be easy for them to find the Title IX coordinator and to learn that this is the person to speak to about gender-based harassment and discrimination. To that end, districts should list Title IX Coordinator alongside other official job titles for appointed personnel. Additionally, this person’s name, title, and contact information should be on all documentation and websites that address issues of harassment and discrimination in the school district. One easy way to streamline this process is to create a phone number and email address (such as TitleIX@schooldistrict.org) that is linked to the role and not a person so it is not necessary to update contact information in these various locations when there is turnover.
If policies on sexual harassment and abuse are not properly written, implemented, and monitored, progress on student success and well-being will be affected at all levels. Thus, school boards — which have the responsibility and authority to set policy and stimulate reform — must be diligent and clearly communicate these legal requirements and potential actions to the school community to encourage students and their families to report incidents. Yet, most school boards spend a small portion of their meeting time on policy development and communication (Land, 2002).
The California School Board Association (CSBA) offers a prominent example of a board that has strongly encouraged its members to bring their Title IX policies up to date to better protect the safety of transgender and gender-nonconforming students. Periodically, the association also publishes sample administrative regulations that local boards can use. For instance, a 2014 policy brief includes nondiscrimination best practices related to privacy, dress, preferred names and pronouns, and physical education and interscholastic athletic activities for transgender students (CSBA, 2014).
Because district personnel may not be knowledgeable about issues related to gender equity and sex-based discrimination, school boards should also collaborate with regional colleges and universities and county offices of education that offer preliminary administrative services and credential programs related to Title IX education to ensure that staff members have accurate and up-to-date information. Community agencies such as LGBTQ+ community groups and safer schools coalitions that advocate for LGBTQ+ youth may be able to help boards strengthen their districts’ community awareness and support programs.
Title IX coordinators
When appointing a new Title IX coordinator, districts should ensure that person is aware of what the role entails, perhaps by providing them the Dear Colleague letter and other guidance drafted by the Office of Civil Rights (Lhamon, 2015). Additionally, the district should prioritize and fund annual professional development. Because our survey revealed that such information is not always provided, though, Title IX coordinators may need to take it upon themselves to request support from immediate supervisors, asking for clarification as to their duties and responsibilities. And if training is not made available, they should take the initiative to pursue professional development opportunities through the Office for Civil Rights, Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA), the Education Law Association, and other organizations that focus on Title IX and gender equity issues.
One of Title IX coordinators’ core responsibilities is providing programs and training for faculty and staff to eliminate sex discrimination in the school district. However, none of the respondents in our study could point to specific efforts to educate district personnel or students about Title IX, district harassment and nondiscrimination policies and procedures, or a proactive school climate program. Education and prevention should be seen as central to a Title IX coordinator’s duties. They should find ways to work with district leaders to identify proactive approaches to educate district staff and students about harassment and gender equity issues, including regular reviews and updates of policies and practices. Title IX coordinators also should play an essential role in providing support and resources for transgender students. This is an area where they should seek additional education and be ready to support schools and districts as they get a growing number of requests to accommodate and support transgender students.
The consequences for neglecting Title IX compliance can be costly for the district and dire for students who are experiencing discrimination. We learned some troubling facts during the course of this study that indicate many school districts are exposing themselves to legal liability and the potential to lose federal funding, as well as falling far short of their legal and ethical responsibilities to provide students and staff an environment free from discrimination. We continue to fail our students when gender equity, full access, and safety remain low priorities. We hope that this study and its recommendations will provide support and guidance for Title IX coordinators to keep improving efforts to make every school a place where every student and family feels safe, affirmed, and welcomed.
CSBA. (2014, February). Providing a safe, nondiscriminatory school environment for transgender and gender-nonconforming students. West Sacramento, CA: Author.
Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1999).
Equal Rights Advocates. (2015). Ending harassment now: Keeping our kids safe at school. San Francisco, CA: Author.
Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools et al., 503 U.S. 60 (1992).
G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, No. 15-2056, 4th Cir. (2016).
Jackson, D., Richards, J.S., Marx, G., & Perez, J.P. (2018, June 1). Betrayed: Chicago schools fail to protect students from sexual abuse and assault, leaving lasting damage. Chicago Tribune.
Land, D. (2002). Local school boards under review: Their role and effectiveness in relation to students’ academic achievement. Baltimore, MD: Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk.
Lhamon, C. (2015). Dear Colleague Letter on Title IX Coordinators. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.
Lhamon, C. & Gupta, V. (2016). Dear Colleague Letter: Transgender Students. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.
Meyer, E.J., Somoza-Norton, A., Rubin, A., Lovgren, N., & Quantz, M. (2018). Title IX coordinators in U.S. schools: Challenges addressing sex discrimination in the #MeToo era. Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 26 (68), 1-28.
Montgomery v. Independent School District No. 709, 109 F. Supp. 2d 1081 (D. Minn. 2000).
Ray v. Antioch Unified School District, 107 F. Supp. 2d 1165 (N.D. Cal. 2000).
Stromquist, N.P. (2013). Education policies for gender equity: Probing into state responses. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 21 (65), 1-31.
Theno v. Tonganoxie Unified School Dist. No. 464, 394 F. Supp. 2d 1299 (D. Kan. 2005).
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 C.F.R.
Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District, No. 16 3522 (7th Cir. 2017).
Citation: Meyer, E.J. & Somoza-Norton, A. (2018). Learning from what doesn’t work in teacher evaluation. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (2), 8-11.