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Commentary: Title IX protections go beyond the playing field

On June 23, 1972, Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments, which requires that all students have equal access to educational opportunities, regardless of their sex. No one can deny this groundbreaking measure has changed the lives of women and girls. But the work begun 40 years ago is hardly finished.

When most people think of Title IX, they think about how it has benefited women’s sports. Indeed, since the law was passed, participation in sports by young women and girls has risen an incredible 90 percent. But there is much more to Title IX.

The American Civil Liberties Union recently launched “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes,” a campaign designed to draw attention to unlawful single-sex education programs in public schools and to encourage school districts to cease offering such programs when they serve no compelling academic interest.

The ACLU had been addressing this issue in isolated cases around the country, but recently took a more comprehensive approach in response to an explosion of single-sex programs. In misguided attempts to fix failing schools, administrators have increasingly turned to popular, albeit discredited, theories about the supposed differences in the way boys and girls learn.

But studies have shown these programs do not have the desired effect. Yes, they’re splashy and bold, but the respected academic journal Science recently demonstrated that these programs don’t actually result in improved academics. What they do encourage are harmful stereotypes about how boys and girls behave and think differently from each other, while implying that boys and girls can never truly be equal.

Many of these programs are based on theories that include the ideas that girls can’t handle stress as well as boys, and so should never be timed during tests; or that boys should be physically active in the classroom, and reserved boys should be encouraged to engage in athletic activities like “normal” boys. This is exactly what Title IX was supposed to discourage. The other protections of Title IX are just as critical. Preventing gender-based violence and harassment -- including sexual harassment and assault, rape and bullying based on stereotypes about how boys or girls ought to look or behave – benefits students whether they are male or female, lesbian/gay/bisexual or transgender.

One of the most egregious violations we’ve come across in recent years involved a Texas girl who was raped by another student at school. When she mustered the courage to report the incident to a trusted adult, she was told to “work it out” with her attacker, and then charged with misconduct herself and sent to the same alternative school as her rapist. The ACLU filed charges on her behalf with the EEOC asserting Title IX violations. The Department of Education recently issued a decision making clear that responses like this by school administrators are impermissible.

Title IX also protects pregnant and parenting students. Sadly, all too often, schools either push out students who must care for themselves and a child or force them to attend segregated programs that offer substandard education. In the end, nearly 70 percent of girls who give birth leave school. Those who stay are sometimes subject to harassment by staff and fellow students.

This was true in the case of Shantelle Hicks, a 15-year-old New Mexico student. When she became pregnant, her school initially tried to force her out. After allowing her back, administrators brought her before her peers at an assembly and told them she was pregnant. Mortified, Shantelle and her family filed Title IX claims against her school with the ACLU’s help. Her case is still pending, but because of Title IX, she is bravely continuing to finish her education and make a better life for herself and her daughter.

Because of Title IX, our daughters and sons are growing up in a world where the idea of placing boys and girls on unequal academic footing is not only scoffed at, it’s unlawful. But as we’ve seen across the country, Title IX is still just as necessary as it was 40 years ago to ensure that every student has the chance to reach his – or her – potential.


Lenora Lapidus is director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. She can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.