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Recent Sexual Assault Cases Push Title IX and Its Reach Into the Spotlight

Whether you are an advocate or a critic of the law passed in 1972 that bans gender discrimination in federally-funded programs, the first thing you think of when you hear Title IX is likely sports. But a recent increase in instances of sexual assault on U.S. college campuses – and what happens after — has pushed Title IX, its enforcement and its reach into the national spotlight.

It’s undeniable that in its 40 years, Title IX has yielded many culture-changing shifts for women in athletics. The dramatic increase in girls' and women's participation in sport since Title IX was passed in 1972 (by 560% at the college level and 990% in high schools) demonstrates that it was lack of opportunity – not lack of interest – that kept females out of high school and college athletics for so many years.

But if we look at the law through a broader lens, what Title IX really means is that all students have a right to an educational experience free of gender discrimination. And more specifically, Title IX contains provisions to reduce the institutional trauma survivors of sexual assault deal with on a daily basis. For example, students may be forced to encounter their assailants in class, in living situations or in campus clubs. Title IX requires that universities take measures to prevent this, such as facilitating class and dorm reassignments and issuing stay-away orders. Additionally, Title IX forbids universities from pressuring or coercing survivors to leave the school because of the effect of the trauma on their academic work.

Several recent sexual assault cases have been closely followed by the media, namely at the University of North Carolina, Amherst College, the University of Connecticut and Vanderbilt University. Each different in details, they all have one thing in common: the victims have alleged their respective colleges mishandled or misreported their assaults. Because the student victims are covered under the statues of Title IX, they have all filed federal complaints against their universities with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. If found guilty, these schools could face fines or further legal action.

So in a proactive effort to work against these Title IX complaints, colleges across the U.S., like Harvard and Amherst, have started hiring Title IX coordinators whose sole charge is to work with faculty, students, and staff on issues of sex discrimination and to work to identify and address any patterns or systemic problems.

Since its enacting, one tenant under Title IX law is that there must be one of these coordinators employed at every school. But what happens so often is that coaches, school administrators, teachers and other staffers are given the secondary job title of “Title IX Coordinator” without any more responsibility than in name only. Universities now hiring dedicated employees is a major step in the right direction, one we hope will have positive implications past sexual assault cases and into the enforcement of Title IX in college sports.