Saturday, October 30, 2010

University of Portland Cuts Golf, Violates Title IX?

University of Portland has announced plans to drop men's and women's golf, and to add women's crew. The article does not provide a reason for the cuts, other than to note that university officials claim the move was "not to cut costs." I'm not at all sure what that means.

While adding women's crew would bring the university closer to compliance under prong 1, its decision to cut women's golf still may violate Title IX. Portland's EADA report says that currently, there are 171 varsity athletic opportunities for female students, or 47% of the 363 opportunities overall. Yet women account for 63% of the student body. Even if we give Portland credit now for the 62 opportunities it plans to add in crew (and OCR does not count hypothetical future opportunities, as we recently noted), the total number of athletic opportunities for women would be 226, or 55% of what will be 410 total athletic opportunities -- still approximately 86 opportunities short of reaching 63%.

Failing to comply with the proportionality prong, Portland must be able to demonstrate compliance with either prong 2 (history and continuous expansion of opportunities for the underrepresented sex) or prong 3 (no unmet interest and abilities), which is difficult to impossible when you cut a women's team. Moreover, as our recent post also suggests, OCR does not look favorably on claims that a university is continuously expanding opportunities for women when it cuts an existing team and replaces it with one that is chosen because it's a good fit for the institution, rather than responsive to existing unmet interest. Thus, a decision to cut on sport and replace it with another that is chosen simply because its large roster offers better chance of Title IX compliance will probably not fly as a prong two defense.

If the female golfers were to challenge this decision, I think they would have a very strong case.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Superintendents Say the Darndest Things...

And we wondered why schools needed a reminder of their obligation to protect students against sexual harassment and sex-based bullying? Here's one superintendent, actually complaining about the recent OCR guidance letter:
"This is an incredible expansion of Title IX," Godfrey-Lee [Michigan] Superintendent David Britten said. "This was something intended for the college level for equality in athletics, expanded into the high school arena and now it’s going to tap right down all the way to pre-school."
Read the statute, Mr. Britten. It actually says nothing about colleges and nothing about athletics. It is a general statute that prohibits all manner of sex discrimination in all educational institutions that receive federal funds. What are they teaching in superintendent school?

Mr. Britten at least went on to say how his district is nevertheless compliant, having recently "revamped its policies" and incorporated efforts to educate freshman about "the topic." So he's apparently just opposed on principle to federal intervention. So how about a poster-child for federal intervention? I nominate Clint McCance, school board member in Arkansas, who lashed out at recent efforts to raise awareness about life-threatening bullying by encouraging all "queers" to commit suicide. With people like this running the education system in our country, no wonder bullying is still met with deliberate indifference.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

OCR "Dear Colleague" Letter Addresses Title IX and Bullying

Today the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights sent letters of guidance to thousands of educational institutions across the country, reminding them of their obligation under Title IX and other civil rights laws to protect students from bullying and harassment.

OCR's letter provided hypothetical examples to illustrate the type of harassment that would warrants protection under Title IX (as well as other examples about race, ethnicity, and disability). One example seemed loosely based on the recent bullying of a Massachusetts teenager that resulted in her suicide:
Shortly after enrolling at a new high school, a female student had a brief romance with another student. After the couple broke up, other male and female students began routinely calling the new student sexually charged names, spreading rumors about her sexual behavior, and sending her threatening text messages and e‐mails. One of the student’s teachers and an athletic coach witnessed the name calling and heard the rumors, but identified it as “hazing” that new students often experience. They also noticed the new student’s anxiety and declining class participation. The school attempted to resolve the situation by requiring the student to work the problem out directly with her harassers.
OCR used this example to make several points: one, that harassment based on a student's sexual behavior is covered by Title IX, two, that harassment may take the form of text messages and rumor-spreading, and three, that school officials did not respond properly by requiring the students to work it out. Rather, the school should have investigated the situation and taken preliminary steps to separate the accuser from the harassers.

Another example, involving bullying of LGBT students, also seemed ripped from recent headlines:
Over the course of a school year, a gay high school student was called names (including anti‐gay slurs and sexual comments) both to his face and on social networking sites, physically assaulted, threatened, and ridiculed because he did not conform to stereotypical notions of how teenage boys are expected to act and appear (e.g., effeminate mannerisms, nontraditional choice of extracurricular activities, apparel, and personal grooming choices). As a result, the student dropped out of the drama club to avoid further harassment. Based on the student’s self‐identification as gay and the homophobic nature of some of the harassment, the school did not recognize that the misconduct included discrimination covered by Title IX. The school responded to complaints from the student by reprimanding the perpetrators consistent with its anti‐bullying policy. The reprimands of the identified perpetrators stopped the harassment by those individuals. It did not, however, stop others from undertaking similar harassment of the student.
With this hypothetical, OCR clarified that while Title IX does not cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, that does not absolve school districts from their obligation to address sexual orientation-based harassment that "overlaps" with sex-based harassment. Specifically, harassment that targets a student for failing to conform to sex stereotypes, such as the teasing in this hypothetical, is sex discrimination that warrants school officials' response. According to OCR's analysis of this hypothetical, the school officials should have done more than reprimand identified perpetrators. Additional steps include: notifying the victim's teachers and otherwise increasing efforts to monitor the situation to prevent ongoing harassment, making a clear statement that such conduct violates the school's policy on harassment, conducting school-wide education on civil rights and tolerance as they relate to gender issues, and providing counseling or other appropriate resources to affected students.

In the end, OCR's guidance letter does not tell schools officials anything they should not already know. After all, all of these responsibilities derive from existing agency and judicial interpretations of Title IX. But judging by the number of sexual harassment cases we blog about here, the word hasn't been getting out and hasn't been sinking in. So this letter was necessary. And hopefully, it will provide school officials with the impetus and the means to take harassment seriously.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

OCR Concludes Investigation of Catawba College

When Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., cut its women's field hockey team last year, Kris concluded that this decision likely violated Title IX, as it served to exacerbate the College's existing disparities between men's and women's athletic opportunities. OCR, it seems, agrees. According to a Letter of Findings, which was forwarded to me by the complainant, OCR determined that the college violates all three prongs of the test measuring equity in the number of participation opportunities available to each sex. First, proportionality is not satisfied, as cutting field hockey means that women are now underrepresented in athletic opportunities by eighteen percentage points, as the college undergrad population is 46% female, but women receive only 28% of athletic opportunities.

As for the second prong, despite some history of adding women's teams (9 teams between 1964 and 1999), the College does not have a "continuing practice" of adding opportunities for the underrepresented sex, as it lacks any sort of procedure and practice to actively determine women's interest levels and respond with appropriate new opportunities (the AD's approach of passively waiting with an "open door" for any reasonable request for new opportunities was not sufficient). Even its recently-announced plans to add women's lacrosse in the future does not constitute a continuing practice, as lacrosse was chosen because it suited the College, not necessarily because it satisfied student body interest. Moreover, OCR will not find that an institution satisfies prong two when it "merely promises to add additional opportunities in the future."

As for prong three, this analysis is usually simple when a college cuts an existing women's teams, as this always serves to generate "unmet interest and ability" among the underrepresented sex. Here, however, the College based its decision to cut field hockey on the absence of competition in the geographic region. Catawba's was the only Division II field hockey team in the south, and had to travel to Pennsylvania for most of its competition. This is relevant because according to OCR's guidance on prong three, schools do not have to fulfill unmet interest in sport for which there is no reasonable expectation of competition in the geographic region in which the College primarily competes. However, OCR's investigation produced no evidence that the College was otherwise seeking to identify, let alone satisfy female students' interests and abilities. So it could not demonstrate compliance with prong three, and consequently, the regulatory requirement for equity in the distribution of athletic opportunities to each sex.

Additionally, separate from the three-prong test, OCR's investigation revealed that Catawba College violated the requirement that every institution appoint a Title IX Coordinator, someone whose job includes coordinating the institution's Title IX compliance effort and investigating any complaints of noncompliance.

The College has entered into a compliance agreement with OCR that imposes deadlines for resolving these violations. By mid-November, the College must have identified its Title IX coordinator and revised its sex discrimination policy to expressly include Title IX grievances. It must also by that time have taken the first step toward demonstrating compliance with the three prong test by creating an assessment of enrolled female students' interest and ability in intercollegiate athletics, and administer this assessment on a yearly basis. It must also analyze high school participation data and other amateur and community sports in the area from which the College draws students and consider potential interest in other sports sanctioned by the NCAA. From this information, it must produce (by next spring) a plan to satisfy any unmet interest and ability revealed by the assessment.

We'll see what happens, but I predict Catawba College will announce plans to add another women's team.

[thanks, Herb!]

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sexual Harassment Roundup

Schools prevailed in three recent Title IX cases involving sexual harassment:
  • A federal court in Pennsylvania refused to enjoin a university disciplinary proceeding allegedly filed in retaliation against a victim of sexual assault for reporting her abuser to authorities. The court recognized that the plaintiff "raises serious concerns about the protections afforded to victims of sexual assault" in that the hearing will require her to confront the person she has accused of sexual assault within one month of the alleged incident and to respond to his charges that her accusations are false. However, the court determined that the hearing itself does not amount to harassment or discrimination against the plaintiff, in part because it will be conducted by a chairperson who can ensure that all questions remain relevant and appropriate, and that the perpetrator of the alleged assault does not have the chance to directly question the victim. Sefanowtcz v. Bucknell Univ., 2010 WL 3938243 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 5, 2010).
  • An elementary school's response was sufficient to preclude Title IX liability for a sexual incident between kindergartners, a federal magistrate has ruled. School officials discovered that one boy touched another's genitals while alone together in the bathroom. The principal then discussed the incident with both boys and their parents, and required oversight to ensure that the boys would not use the bathroom at the same time. These efforts did not prevent a second sexually-suggestive incident between the boys in the bathroom, but they nevertheless could not be characterized as "deliberate indifference." There was no evidence other than the first incident that would have suggested that the perpetrating student would continue to harass the victim, so the district's decision to address this issue with a monitoring requirement. Nor does the fact that the boys somehow managed to evade the bathroom monitor charged to keep them separated render the school's response indifferent one. Brooks v. City of Philadelphia, 2010 WL 392835 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 5, 2010).
  • The Eight Circuit recently granted a school district's motion for summary judgment on a plaintiff's Title IX and constitutional claims stemming from the sexual misconduct of a basketball coach at Delight High School in Delight, Arkansas. The plaintiff's parents sued the school district and various officials after learning that the coach, Chad Smith, was having a sexual relationship with their daughter, a player on the team. On appeal from a decision denying the motion, the appellate court determined that the facts alleged failed to satisfy Title IX's requirement that school district officials have actual notice of sexual abuse or harassment and responded with deliberate indifference. Specifically, the court rejected that prior claims of inappropriate text messaging by Smith produced such notice. District officials had investigated and addressed these messages, and with regards to the only message with sexually suggestive content, determined that it not been sent by the coach at all. The principal also followed up on a rumor that the plaintiff's daughter was skipping class to spend time with Smith, but found no evidence to corroborate this claim. Moreover, other claims of misconduct by the coach (threatening players and directing them in an act of poor sportsmanship) -- though resulting in the district's decision not to renew his contract -- failed to provide adequate notice that he was sleeping with a player. Doe v. Flaherty, 2010 WL 4068748 (8th Cir. Oct. 19, 2010).

Friday, October 15, 2010

Title IX and bullying

We have been fairly silent on the recent spate of anti-gay bullying. It is not from indifference--rather we have been very concerned and somewhat at a loss as to what to say. We have commented previously on bullying, both anti-gay bullying and bullying that can be construed as sexual harassment. For some reason, I had thought the publicity around previous cases signaled a greater awareness and might possibly lead to a reduction in these incidents. And perhaps it has. Perhaps we have just experienced an unfortunate, concentrated period of anti-gay violence, and the programs and awareness that have been created will move us out of this violence. But I also know that as much publicity as these cases have received, there are less extreme cases (or outcomes) happening daily in American schools.
I was glad to finally see some commentary on the role of Title IX in preventing bullying. And John Merrow, at the Huffington Post, went directly to the source: Dr. Bernice Sandler.
The following is an excerpt from Merrow's post that includes quotes from Sandler.

The federal law known Title IX (1972) prohibits sexual harassment, and most bullying falls into that category. "Most cyberbullying and other forms of bullying, as well, include sexual references. Girls are called "sluts" and "hos," boys are called "fags' and other sexual names. Sexual rumors and comments are frequent."

Dr. Sandler says Title IX requires schools to act, no matter where the cyberbullying occurs. "This federal law also prohibits these behaviors outside the school, as when personal computers are used, and when the behavior is disruptive to learning, such as affecting a student's ability to partake of the opportunities for learning in school as well as partaking in other school opportunities provided by the school. Schools have an obligation to stop sexual bullying when it occurs and to have a policy that prohibits it."

Friday, October 08, 2010

Indiana Scheduling Case Decided On Summary Judgment

Yesterday, federal district court judge William T. Lawrence of the Southern District of Indiana dismissed claims against the Indiana High School Athletic Association and area high schools that scheduling girls' basketball for fewer Friday and Saturday night games violated Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause. We've been following this case for a while, see prior posts here, here, here, and here.

In evaluating whether the high schools themselves violated Title IX, Judge Lawrence acknowledged that the regulations require equal treatment between boys' and girls' teams, and that the regulations specifically cite "scheduling of games and practice time" as an aspect of this determination. 34 C.F.R. § 106.41(c)(3). The judge also cited OCR's 1979 Policy Interpretation, which provides additional guidance for evaluating equality between athletic opportunities offered to each sex:
a. Whether the policies of an institution are discriminatory in language or effect;
b. Whether disparities of a substantial and unjustified nature exist in the benefits,
treatment, services, or opportunities afforded male and female athletes in the
institution’s program as a whole; or
c. Whether disparities in benefits, treatment, services, or opportunities in
individual segments of the program are substantial enough in and of themselves to deny equality of athletic opportunity.
Disparities in treatment, the judge concluded, must be "substantial" to constitute a violation of Title IX. In other cases involving scheduling, the judge acknowledged, courts have concluded that decisions to schedule girls' sports in a nontraditional season violated Title IX because such decisions limited the female athletes' access to role models, skills development, and team-building. But playing more weeknight games does not harm female athletes in these particular ways, so therefore, he reasoned, the high schools' scheduling decisions do not create substantial disparities in violation of Title IX.

Missing from the judge's analysis is an independent evaluation of the effect of a disparity in night-of-the-week scheduling, rather than season-of-the-year. Granted, judicial decisions to date have dealt with the former rather than the latter. But simply to conclude that the plaintiffs didn't suffer the same kind of harm as those in the season-of-the-year case is insufficient reasoning, as it fails to consider whether the harms from having more weeknight games might be substantially harmful in a different way. Greater academic challenges and a diminished opportunity to develop a fan base are two possible harms that come to mind. Another possibility -- which actually does have support in the season-of-the-year scheduling cases, is that scheduling girls' sports more often at a non-preferred time stigmatizes girls' teams with second-class status.

Another concern I have is that the factors cited by the judge from the 1979 Policy Interpretation are alternative, not conjunctive, suggesting that noncompliance might result from failure to comply with either standard independently. It seems to me, then, that the judge should have evaluated under part a. whether the schedule contains "discriminatory language or effect" as well as whether the effect of discrimination was "substantial," an element of b. and c. A schedule that relegates girls games to more weeknight games seemingly constitutes "discriminatory language or effect."

The judge also decided that the IHSAA did not violate the Equal Protection Clause, nor (in a separate decision issued last week) Title IX, reasoning that IHSAA did not determine the schedule of games; it only tells member institutions how many games it can schedule, when the season starts and ends, and limits each team to no more than two weeknight games per week. The judge did not endorse the plaintiff's argument that the IHSAA's failure to require gender equity in scheduling was "deliberate indifference" to discrimination, noting the absence of precedent for such a standard in these kinds of cases.

I am rooting for an appeal.

Decision: Parker v. Indiana High School Athletic Ass'n et al, 1:09-cv-00885-WTL-WGH (S.D. Ind. Oct. 6, 2010) (retrieved from Pacer, not yet available on Westlaw).

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Report Urges Equal Opportunity for Transgender Athletes

The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Women's Sports Foundation recently teamed up to tackle the barriers transgender student athletes face when seeking to participate in sex-segregated sports. A report released this week, authored by NCLR's Helen Carroll and WSF/It Takes A Team emerita Pat Griffin, provides guidance, in the form of policy recommendations and best practices, to high schools and colleges regarding this issue. The report is timely and necessary, as transgender athletes may be effectively excluded by the absence of any such policy, and in other cases, directly excluded by policies that do exist. Under the policy of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Association, for example, transgender athletes may compete with the sex that matches their gender identity only if they comply with the same standard that the International Olympic Committee uses for this purpose -- a very high standard that requires legal sex change, sex reassignment surgery, hormone treatments, and a two year waiting period. At the high school level, very few students are likely to have the time and resources to comply with these requirements within the period of time of high school eligibility, let alone a medical diagnosis that warrants irreversible surgery at such a young age.

In contrast, the report urges all state interscholastic agencies to adopt a policy of inclusion modeled on the one adopted by the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association two years ago. The WIAA's policy allows students to participate in the sports for whichever sex the student consistently identifies. A liberal participation policy ensures that all students have access to the educational benefits provided through athletics, and reflects the wide variation that already exists within the sexes, particularly among youth.

For college athletics, the report recommends a policy that focuses on a particular medical aspect of a transgender athlete's transition to the opposite sex: hormone treatment. Under the prescribed policy, a transgender athlete transitioning from male to female may compete in women's sports after a one year of taking estrogen and androgen blockers. (Such an athlete may continue to participate in men's sports during that one-year period, and even afterwards if she so chooses.) This policy reflects scientific research suggesting that most relevant sex-based physical differences are materially reduced or eliminated by such treatment. For the opposite reason, an athlete transitioning from female to male may not compete in women's sports after testosterone treatments have begun.

Significantly, neither the recommendation for high school or college athletics borrows from the IOC's surgical requirement, deemed overly-restrictive and, in light of hormone requirement, unnecessary to reduce sex-related physical differences between the sexes. The proposed policies also differ from existing ones by spelling out an athlete's right to appeal any challenge to their participation, ensuring confidentiality, and addressing collateral issues such as locker rooms, uniforms, and hotel room assignments. With regard to the latter issues, the policy takes the position that a transgender athlete ought to be treated like any other athlete of his or her transitioned sex. It smartly goes on to say that teams should support and seek to accommodate any athlete with privacy concerns, not just transgender athletes.

In sum, the proposed policies are appropriately focused on inclusion, and incorporate a well-researched position on the limited degree to which physical differences create competitive advantages, as well how such differences, when they tend to be more relevant, are moderated by hormone therapy. I hope that it gains traction among state athletic associations and college associations like the NCAA, and I am optimistic that this will be the case. Significantly, the report authors got input from athletic administrators in addition to the scientists and legal experts they also consulted.

Strike IX profiles the 1999 Providence College Baseball Team

When author Paul Lonardo contacted me about his new book Strike IX, I worried I might be in for another misplaced Title-IX-is-the-enemy screed from an advocate for men's sports. But after reading a copy of the book, which Paul kindly sent me, I learned that Strike IX is the story of the athletes on the 1999 Providence College men's baseball team who went on to have the season of their lives after the college announced its decision to cut the program. Strike IX is a compelling underdog story about athletes playing for pride, playing for the love of the game when there's no tomorrow, when the "only thing left to do is to go out and win the whole $*!@ thing!" Under these circumstances, the 1999 Providence College baseball team produced the best season record in the program's history and a Big East conference championship. It was, in sum, a good sports story.

The only problem I had was the title. Calling the book Strike IX creates the impression that Title IX was to blame for the college's decision to eliminate the team. And the chapter in the book that discusses the relationship between Title IX and PC's program reduction could have done more to clarify the statute's role. I have two specific critiques. First, while the author appropriately notes that PC made its decision to terminate baseball in the wake of the Title IX litigation involving Brown University, he leaves the impression that the decision created PC's obligation to comply with Title IX. Rather, the regulatory standard that Brown so gloriously unsuccessfully challenged in the early 1990s had been on the books since 1979. Unexamined in Strike IX was what Providence College's compliance approach had been since then. With twenty years to play with, did the institution seek to equalize men's and women's athletic opportunities gradually, so as to avoid a drastic approach like cutting teams? Or did PC behave cavalierly, like many colleges did, and exacerbate inequities by continuing to grow men's sports without first bringing women's sports up to level? It's true that Title IX limits school's choices about which teams to cut when that school fails to provide proportionate opportunities to begin with. But PC's decisionmaking prior to 1999 is what created that disproportionality, and some of that should have been in the book.

My second critique is that the author accepted too quickly PC's rhetoric about why it thought it had to satisfy the proportionality standard (and thus, to do so by cutting a men's team) rather than to claim compliance with prong three. Prong three recognizes that even disproportionate athletic offerings (like PC's at the time) can still comply with Title IX, as long as there is no demonstrable unmet interest among members of the underrepresented sex (i.e., women). Generally, an institution does not have a problem with prong three unless they (1) decide to cut a viable women's team (which PC did not do) or (2) reject a proposal from a women's club team to elevate to varsity status. Thus, if PC had been receiving and rejecting requests to elevate women's teams to varsity status, its claims that it "had to" comply with proportionality might ring true. But if not, it's more likely that the university was using Title IX to scapegoat its decision to engage in program reduction that it had made for others. Title IX prohibits schools like PC from making existing disproportionality worse through program reduction, which is why PC couldn't cut a women's team once it decided to cut teams, but it does not require a school to engage in program reduction to begin with. In PC's case, then, the decision to cut baseball was likely less related to Title IX than the college would have us think. That's the reality I would have liked to read about in Strike IX. Unfortunately, that doesn't lend itself to a clever book title.