Understanding Title IX Noncompliance

Authored By 
Celene Reynolds
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
November 16, 2015

Title IX, the U.S. civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, has recently gained national prominence because it proscribes sexual harassment in educational institutions. Over 100 colleges and universities are currently under investigation by the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) for violating Title IX on the allegation that they have mishandled campus sexual violence. A national student movement, exemplified by groups such as Columbia’s No Red Tape and Occidental’s Sexual Assault Coalition, has developed in order to hold universities accountable for properly enforcing Title IX. The President has even demonstrated his dedication to the issue by creating the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which recently launched a celebrity-sponsored campaign to end campus sexual violence (NotAlone.gov). These are indicators that sex discrimination in education is now a more pressing problem than ever before. Yet despite the contemporary salience of Title IX as well as the fact that it has been on the books for over 40 years, we have little information on the number of alleged Title IX violations that occur.

The scant information that is available on Title IX noncompliance comes not from researchers working on the topic but instead from the press and OCR. The press reports almost exclusively on high-profile investigations of or complaints against prestigious institutions. Jon Krakauer’s most recent book, Missoula (2015), is one example, documenting the University of Montana’s and Missoula law enforcement’s failure to address campus rape. Another is Columbia University, which has received substantial media attention for undergraduate Emma Sulkowicz’s 2014-2015 mattress performance art piece protesting the University’s alleged mishandling of sexual assault. Though informative, these stories bias and, as evinced by Sabrina Erdely’s now discredited Rolling Stone article about campus rape at the University of Virginia (2014), sometimes obscure understandings of the issue of sex discrimination in higher education.

The information OCR releases, on the other hand, is accurate but limited. Like the Department of Labor, the Department of Justice, and other administrative agencies, OCR periodically issues reports to the President, Congress, and the Secretary of Education on its activities, usually including the number of discrimination complaints received. However, unlike other agencies, OCR publishes these reports at inconsistent intervals and includes different data each time. For certain periods, reports come every year; for others, every four years. Some reports only give multi-year totals for the number of complaints filed by statute; a few provide counts of the issues cited in complaints but only by broad general categories; and only three out of the total 13 available reports provide data on the types of schools facing complaints, that is, whether they are elementary, secondary, or postsecondary institutions. This limited information provides the basis for major policy decisions about how Title IX should be put into action.

The lack of knowledge about the mobilization of Title IX in the form of OCR complaints is particularly problematic now, when a national effort to modify the law and its implementation is underway. The standard of proof used in school-level sexual harassment grievance procedures has already been lowered (OCR Dear Colleague Letter, April 4, 2011). The consequences for being found guilty through such procedures are proposed to toughen through “Scarlet Letter” laws requiring colleges to permanently mark the transcripts of students found responsible. And the glut of sex discrimination complaints to the Department of Education has led to a dramatic increase in its requested budget: Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon solicited an increase of $30.7 million for the employment of 200 additional lawyers and investigators. 

To effectively address the problem of Title IX noncompliance and, more broadly, sex discrimination in education, we must develop a better understanding of it. Empirical research systematically investigating the number and kinds of complaints filed as well as the types of schools that tend to receive higher numbers of complaints should inform the current national effort to recalibrate the law. This knowledge will facilitate the development of targeted policy interventions that are more likely to effect desired change. Without this knowledge, policymakers are driving blind.

Celene Reynolds is a Policy Fellow at ISPS and a graduate student in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests include social change, law, educational organizations, and gender and sexuality.