It’s been 50 years since the U.S. government passed a series of education amendments aimed at improving equal access to education. Within that series was the landmark Title IX, which protects students from sex-based discrimination. The Biden administration will be publishing its proposed changes to Title IX this week, giving the public 60 days to weigh in. The the National Women’s Law Center, an UnidosUS partner, has been presenting a series of webinars exploring some of Title IX’s achievements and how it can be strengthened, including one on June 7th titled Keeping Our Girls in School.
While Title IX is best known for promoting gender equality in sports, it has many other far-reaching impacts. For example, it also aims to protect students from sexual assault, harassment, and stereotyping, and to eliminate gender gaps in academia. But in 2020, during the Trump Administration, then Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued guidance on Title IX that scrapped Obama-era guidance explicitly protecting trans students, and she gave more protections to those accused of sexual harassment and assault, and restricted investigations to incidents that happendd on campus or during a school activity, making it harder for schools to investigate cases. This raised alarm with civil rights groups across the country.
In March of 2021, just months after taking office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order for incoming Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to review Title IX and look for ways to strengthen it. Panelists on this webinar hailed that move, and noted it is especially important for girls of color and members of the LGBTQ community, who face sex discrimination at disproportionately higher levels than their white counterparts.
“We must push forward because equality is not a privilege. It’s a right,” said Rebecca Epstein, the executive director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law Center, during opening remarks for the webinar.
POC, LGBTQ, and the School to Prison Pipeline
Webinar moderator Bayliss Fiddiman, who serves as the National Women’s Law Center’s director of educational equity and senior counsel, began the first segment of the program discussing the ways gender and race-based discrimination play out in the U.S. school system.
Referencing her organization’s 2018 toolkit Let Her Learn, she noted that Black girls are 5.5 times more likely and Native American girls three times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls.
“What are the reasons for this disparity and how can we create learning environments where girls are not removed from the classroom?” Fiddiman asked.
Panelist Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, which combines law, communications, policy, and technology for democratic change, began by adding to that data. She said Black girls are two times more likely than white girls to be restrained, three times more likely to receive corporal punishment, five times more likely to be transferred to alternative schools, and four times more likely to be expelled and arrested. Dianis attributed these numbers to historical biases, some overt and some implicit.
“Part of this is around the way that Black girls and Brown girls are stereotyped. They’re seen as older, it’s called adultification, They’re seen to be sassy and promiscuous, hypersexualized, defiant when speaking up for themselves,” she noted, adding that the impact of this bias and the subsequent disciplinary actions that follow can lead to the girls to have “bad outcomes for a whole lifetime.”
But she also noted that her organization strives to change that by empowering students to understand the phenomenon and develop the tools to advocate for themselves. They do so by helping the students learn to track disciplinary action, most notably through reports of police officers assaulting students in schools.
“It’s important that young people see the full story so that they know ‘well, it’s not just me,’” Browne Dianis said. “We engage them in talking about what are the alternatives. Young people know. They know what they want. They can imagine how it could be very different. We work with them to understand the data, the stories, then talk about what are the alternatives? What would you want to see happen differently in your school?”
In the end, these students may end up helping to rewrite school discipline codes or a memorandum of understanding with police, and Browne Dianis noted those activities can lay the groundwork for these students to spend a lifetime advocating for policy changes in their communities.
Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence
Another integral part of Title IX is the way it seeks to protect students from sexual harassment and violence, and to advocate for them when survivors of these crimes come forward to report their cases.
Panelist Salamishah Tillet, a sexual assault survivor and Title IX advocate, reaffirmed the importance of utilizing the law to end sexual violence and bring justice for survivors.
“I lived in a moment where Title IX wasn’t being used to actually hold people accountable,” said Tillet. She and her sister, fellow panelist Scheherazade Tillet, co founded the non-profit youth empowerment program A Long Walk Home for this very purpose.
“I think it’s important to think about the ways sexual assault is one of the primary reasons why people leave school, whether it’s high school or drop out of college or change majors, so that has a long-term impact on their career professions but it’s also another indicator,” said Salamishah Tillet, noting that people who are incarcerated are disproportionately victims of sexual assault.
“We know that young black girls are the fastest growing population in terms of juvenile and justice and so there’s a way in which sometimes these conversations get siloed. Oftentimes we don’t think about the ways in which the kind of everyday sexual harassment that girls and gender non-conforming youth experience in school impacts their sense of safety, their sense of dignity, and their educational success.”
While schools are often the place where sexual harassment and assault occur, Scheherazade Tillet was quick to point out that during the pandemic, life outside of school walls was also complex for girls of color. Many of them were frontline workers or took on heavier roles as caregivers, tutors, and first responders to siblings or friends in the community.
“That has a devastating impact on their wellness,” Scheherazade Tillet said, noting that when schools are open, the presence of counselors and other authorities makes it easier to identify or detect which students may be experiencing abuse.
She said that in 2021, the organization conducted a pandemic impact study in which they asked girls of color “do you know a young person – another Black girl – who’s currently experiencing domestic violence or sexual violence, and 27% of them said ‘yes.’”
She said those same girls reported serving as de facto counselors or taking victims in because there were no other supports.
“If you’re looking at the data, sexual assault and sexual harassment are actual pipelines to incarceration,” said Salamishah Tillet, adding this can translate to fewer job opportunities and lower wages.
Pregnant and Parenting Students
The final portion of this Title IX discussion was dedicated to pregnant and parenting students, another sector of the school population which receives disproportionately high levels of discrimination, contributing to only half of young mothers earning a high school diploma by the age of 22.
Lisette Orellana Engel, vice president of policy and systems change for the female and LGBTQ advocacy organization National Crittenton, was a teen mother 20 years ago, and finds that when it comes to pregnant and parenting students, Title IX enforcement was weak then and it still is.
“We have no idea that there’s this protection, that we have these rights, and that we’re entitled to accommodations, and we’re entitled to protections,” Engel said.
Some schools don’t even know there’s a legal requirement to provide certain support, added Jessica Lee, senior staff attorney for Work Life Law and director of the center’s initiative The Pregnant Scholar.
“We see students pushed into segregated programs just for pregnant students or moms. We see students told that ‘yeah, you can have homebound instruction as you recover from birth, but we’re gonna end that in two weeks,’ as though most moms are somehow just able to hop right back to it two weeks later,” said Lee. “There’s this overarching sense at every level that once somebody gets pregnant or becomes a parent they just don’t belong.”
At the college level, the panelists said student mothers and parenting students greatly struggle to meet their most basic needs such as food,housing and quality childcare, and that in many cases, they end up losing college scholarships because of pregnancy and pregnancy leave.
“All of those examples are illegal, and there’s a really great fix which is: stop doing it,” said Lee. “Institutions need to wake up to the fact that pregnant and parenting students do belong and do have legal protections, and really integrate that throughout their entire system, from the admissions to how we’re doing registration.”
And while she said some states are trying to improve the educational gap – Oregon now tracks the numbers of pregnant and parenting students, and California and Illinois are considering lactation protections – the entire U.S. school system needs comprehensive training on non-discrimination and policies on pregnancy accommodation and leave.
Engle also reminded viewers of the incredible intersectionality of issues involved in pregnancy and parenting, and that oftentimes it has little to do with some “bad choice” on the part of the mother.
“Many times there’s trauma involved,” she noted, reaffirming an earlier statement by Epstein who said changes to Title IX should be aimed at putting an end to rape culture.
Leveraging Title IX
Throughout all these gender-based discrimination concerns, participants of the webinar reaffirmed the importance of filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Education, even though it might lead to some backlash or reprisal in the short term.
“I always think about people that say, ‘oh, well, we have all these great laws on the books. Let’s not rock the boat,” said Browne Dianis. She countered that perspective by saying, “we have the laws on the book, let’s use them.”
For its part, UnidosUS’s education policy team is following presentations like this one as it awaits the Biden Administration’s review of Title IX, and offered the following comments to ProgressReport.co.
“Latinx students matter and they deserve to go to schools where they are supported in their learning. Schools are meant to be a safe haven for all. Including students who are discriminated and isolated based on their pregnancy status, as well as those who are at elevated risks of being suspended and expelled due to harsh school discipline policies,” said UnidosUS Senior Policy.
UnidosUS also recognizes that these discussions come amid Pride Month.
“We know that LGBTQ+ students, especially Latinx LGBTQ+ students, have worse academic outcomes than their heterosexual, cisgender peers and bullying and harassment based on one’s sexual orientation are among the primary reasons for these disparities. When attending schools that are not safe and inclusive, these outcomes are exacerbated. Title IX has the power to stop this,” said UnidosUS Policy Analyst Kendall Evans.