Gender discrimination in education begins early in one’s life—in the little things like representation in picture books all the way to sexual harassment later in one’s education. We can look to many causes for this epidemic of inequity, but one of the least discussed and most prevalent causes for unresolved gender discrimination in schools is the disconnect between Title IX and the schools themselves.

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions receiving federal funding. It is one of our most important protections against gender discrimination and a tool for self-advocacy. Title IX gives students the legal right to contest gender discrimination and advocate for themselves without retribution. Under Title IX, students have the right to gender equality.

However, Title IX remains elusive to most students. The experience of students across the United States varies widely by state. In some, students receive adequate sexual education classes, but even in those schools, Title IX remains elusive to most students.

The greatest safeguard to discrimination is education—not only to teachers and school staff but to students. If school administrators receive Title IX training, why shouldn’t students as well? Most students don’t know what Title IX is, and this is a large part of the problem. I’ve met students who thought that gender discrimination was unfair and sexist but had no idea that we have institutional protections like Title IX. One thing is clear: it is not the fault of students. Even in the age of information, most students are not familiar with how Title IX can help them. 

We believe the solution involves providing resources to help students educate themselves. Below are our solutions to the disconnect between Title IX and K-12 schools. These are informed by original research, student experiences, and interactions with Title IX in dress code reform initiatives we’ve conducted.

  • Create accessible resources for school staff and students.

Just as you would find sexual harassment resources posted on the wall of a hallway, students should understand basic concepts of gender discrimination prohibitions. 

What do you need to know?

  • Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex (gender). If you are concerned that you are receiving unfair treatment based on your gender, please contact your school Title IX coordinator.
  • You have the full right to equality and should not be held to gender stereotypes or treatment different from other genders.
  • You have the right to speak up without retribution if you feel you are being treated differently because of your gender, discriminated against based on your gender identity preferences, or if you have been sexually harassed/assaulted by another student or school staff member.

It isn’t complicated—it’s common sense. Give students access to basic resources about their rights.

  • Reform Title IX offices.

In K-12 schools, Title IX coordinators at individual schools are often hard to find, undertrained, and underutilized. Frequently, they have other roles and responsibilities other than those of a Title IX coordinator—it isn’t their only job. The Human Resources official often (at a district-wide level) acts as a Title IX coordinator as well. In some schools, “Title IX coordinator” can act as little more than a name tag. Funding is a major aspect of this problem, but it comes down to who the “Title IX coordinator” is. If they are a principal or other administrative official, they are likely busy with other responsibilities, making it challenging to act in their full capacity as a Title IX coordinator.

School districts should always provide a public list of Title IX coordinators at individual schools. While some are listed on school websites, most students have little idea that a Title IX coordinator exists, who they are, and what they do. This makes it challenging for students who have been sexually harassed/assaulted to get help from the right people. If a student wants a class change to be away from their harasser, the school should be willing and ready to help them. Instead, when students complain, some schools often make schedule changes challenging, stressful, and time-consuming.

Here are our official recommendations for Title IX office reform in K-12 schools:

  1. Title IX coordinators should be accessible to students. Their name, role, and contact information should be given to all students. 
  2. Title IX coordinators should serve only as a Title IX coordinator, OR if funding is an issue, should be paired with the role of a school therapist or mental health professional.
  3. Title IX offices should provide direct access to mental health support for students who have been sexually harassed/assaulted.

If you report sexual harassment or other forms of gender discrimination to your Title IX coordinator or school official and they do not act at all,  you may be witnessing deliberate indifference. Deliberate indifference refers to complete inaction on the part of schools after reporting gender discrimination (which includes sexual harassment). This is a serious issue—courts have ruled that schools displaying deliberate indifference are likely to violate Title IX. You have the right to continue speaking up without fear of retribution—advocate for that right.

When we begin to educate students and school staff on what Title IX is, how it can help students, and why it matters, the disconnect between Title IX and K-12 schools can finally begin to close. And with that, we can provide safer and more equitable school environments for all K-12 students across the United States.

Additional Resources:

ACLU Know Your Rights: Sex Discrimination

Sexualization, Sex Discrimination, and Public School Dress Codes

An Administrative Right To Be Free from Sexual Violence? Title IX Enforcement in Historical and Institutional Perspective

Subverting Title IX

Title IX: How We Got It and What a Difference it Made