Friday, July 29, 2016

Does Michigan State's Women-Only Study Lounge Violate Title IX?

The Washington Post reported this week on the controversial decision by Michigan State University to lift the women-only designation that had formerly applied to a study lounge in the student union. Though the timing coincides with public critique of the lounge by a professor from the University of Michigan, MSU contends that it had already decided to remove the women-only designation as a means to comply with Title IX. Female and male MSU students alike have reportedly responded to the decision by petitioning the university to reinstate the women-only space.

Putting aside the question of whether a women only lounge is a helpful and/or necessary, I have to say that I agree with MSU's assessment that a study lounge designated for women only is a violation of Title IX.  I furthermore disagree with the university's apparent belief that adding a comparable lounge for men -- an idea that MSU rejected -- would have cured the legal problem.

Title IX by its terms bans sex discrimination in federally funded institutions. Technically, the only time it is permissible to treat students differently on the basis of sex is when there is an exception written in to the statute or into the regulations. . In terms of facilities, these areas include housing, toilets, bathrooms and housing facilities, where "separate but equal" treatment is permissible (34 C.F.R. 106.32 & 106.33). In terms of programs, it is permissible for colleges and universities to separate men and women in athletics, some physical education classes that involve contact sports, and choruses. Id. at 106.34.  Admissions of private undergrad institutions is not covered by Title IX which is how women's colleges can legally exist. But this exemption does not pertain to public schools like Michigan State, and even if it did, it does not give rise to a right to impose differential treatment on male and female students once they are admitted. Id. at 106.15. Elementary and secondary schools have a little more leeway to offer single-sex education in some circumstances, but this is not replicated for higher education outside the context of admissions. Id. at 106.34. Finally, there is a provision that allows a university to administer scholarships and awards that are designated for only one sex, so long as it "otherwise makes available reasonable opportunities for similar [opportunities] for members of the other sex."  Id. at 106.37.

And that's it. Those are the exceptions to the default rule of equal treatment. So in the absence of a provision governing women's-only or gender-segregated study lounges, they are technically not allowed.

That said, students are justified in insisting on space to study that is free from interruption by other students who want to ask them out -- what appears to be the chief concern of petitioning students at MSU.  One way to accomplish this would be for MSU to designate the lounge as a "quiet" lounge and prohibit all people from interrupting studiers, whether to ask them out or for other reasons that would presumably be equally intrusive. Or MSU could permit students to sign out the lounge (or parts of it) for use by study groups, which would permit a self-assembled group of female students to use the lounge at their designated time. A study lounge within a women's dormitory or on an all-women's floor would also be OK under the exception for housing.  Finally, I'd argue that it would also be permissible to designate space for a gender-focused student group, such as the Society of Women Engineers.  Though men could not legally be excluded from the lounge if they really wanted to make a big deal about it, a sign on the door declaring the space to be "SWE headquarters" would probably work to divert most male engineers to another lounge as a matter of respect and/or disinterest.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Pepperdine Withdraws Title IX Exemption

Huffington Post was the first to report this week on Pepperdine University's written withdrawal of an earlier, 1976 request for a religious exemption under Title IX.  Specifically, the exemption allowed Pepperdine to discriminate against female students by excluding them from opportunities to preach in chapel and otherwise withhold support for their efforts to become ministers. It also permitted Pepperdine to punish students for engaging in "heterosexual relations outside of holy wedlock or in homosexual relations."

Earlier this year, however, Pepperdine's president wrote to the Department of Education withdrawing the earlier-requested exemption, noting that the university is "committed to complying with Title IX" and that it wanted this to be reflected in any public lists or databases of Title IX-exempt institutions. When the letter came to light this week, the university supplemented it with a statement explaining that the earlier exemption " does not fully reflect Pepperdine’s values today" and affirming that "Pepperdine’s mission and the goals of Title IX are aligned."

Pepperdine's move is an understandable public relations move. As the government provides more transparency on religious exemptions from Title IX, it is reasonable to predict that exempt institutions will increasingly contend with negative publicity. Pepperdine's express rejection of its own earlier exemption appears to suggest that the university is making that same calculation. Interestingly, Pepperdine is in the midst of a lawsuit in which two former female students alleged that they were harassed and penalized because of their relationship with each other. Pepperdine could have doubled down on its exemption and become the first institution to test whether the exemption works as a defense in third-party litigation (as opposed to applying only to government enforcement). But such a tactic would have cemented Pepperdine's reputation as an exempt institution and underscored our worse fears that the exemptions provide a license to discriminate. So rather than use the exemption as a shield, Pepperdine has put it away so that it would not become a sword in which it might impale itself.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Trans issues round-up

In an act that I would find singularly outrageous if it were not in the current climate of fear--of everything and everyone--we see just how vulnerable some people are and how much we need the current interpretation of Title IX that includes transgender students.

In Wisconsin a trans high school student was told he could not use the boys' bathroom. He was offered the girls' bathroom or the office restroom. Neither option is acceptable but for a year, Ash Whitaker just did not use the bathroom at school, which had negative physical (and I would imagine emotional) health consequences. So he just started using the boys' bathroom seemingly without issue (and support from peers and some teachers) until the school instituted its wristband program. It would force students like Ash to use bathrooms based on sex on birth certificate. A green wristband would indicate that wearers are trans. The district and school wants to be able to monitor trans students and their bathroom use. The wristband reveals their trans identity to everyone.

A green wristband to identify trans students. The comparison is obvious and even if this is not a nationwide trend, it is deeply troubling. Whitaker and his mother have filed a Title IX lawsuit against the district. Also, this case serves as an example of the power of visibility. The Whitaker family was inspired to take action (there were other issues in addition to bathrooms) when they read about Gavin Grimm's case in Virginia.

Better news in South Carolina where a trans student, after OCR found her school district in violation of Title IX, is being allowed to use the girls' room in accordance to her gender of identity. The district engaged in a voluntary resolution of the complaint.

It is hard to take up the fight against discriminatory practices because often they lead to additional discrimination and backlash. It is more difficult in some areas and states than others. We live in Massachusetts where last week the legislature passed anti-discrimination legislation allowing trans people to use public restrooms and locker rooms in accordance with their gender identity. Yay Massachusetts! This does not mean, of course, that discrimination will cease. But an anti-discrimination measure has the backing of the state and that is hopeful. It goes into effect this fall.

Not Title IX related and not trans related (though potential implications) but too important to go without mention: Caster Semenya, who was subject to a disgraceful and malicious inspection of her gender in 2009 and then cleared to compete the following year, is competing in Rio this summer and is a favorite to win the 800 and also is a contender in the 400. But her participation is not without controversy, sadly. Again, despite being given the OK to compete in the field she has always competed in 6 years ago, some people are still worried about things being fair. Marathoner Paula Radcliffe--who does not compete against Semenya--is suspect of Semenya's participation and believes it is not sport when it is presumed that Semenya will win the gold. I guess gymnastics is going to suffer then given that Simone Biles is the presumptive all-around winner next month. Also Semenya, who won silver in 2012, is benefiting from the banning of the Russian team from track and field. Gold went to a Russian in London.

Her other fear is that so-called normal women will be pushed out of the sport when people to go areas of the world with higher occurrences of hyperandrogenism, which is the condition Semenya is believed to have. (In a rare moment of actually protecting her privacy, the results of her tests were not released.) One, athletes are recruited for specific physical traits all the time. Two, high testosterone levels are no guarantee of a specific performance outcome given that testosterone receptors are all over the body and perform different functions. Three, I could find distribution rates of intersex conditions. (They could exist, of course.)

Friday, July 08, 2016

Minot State Ignored Sexual Assault By Professor, OCR Finds

The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights announced yesterday that it has reached a resolution agreement with Minot State University in North Dakota after finding that the institution violated Title IX in its response to reports of sexual assault. In particular, the university did not investigate or address a complaint made by a former student that she had been sexually assaulted by a professor for over two years. In addition, OCR's investigation found that overall only one of four complaints of sexual harassment reported to campus security officers actually led to a campus Title IX investigation.

My impression is that Minot State's violations of Title IX are among the most egregious findings that OCR has made in recent years. As opposed to procedural and policy violations of Title IX that have been found in other cases (e.g., here, here, and here), here the university outright ignored an egregious complaint. It is easy to imagine the injury this caused to to the reporting former student, as well as the significant risk to other students that the university created when it decided not to act. In combination with the pattern of under-investigating complaints made to campus security, it is clear that the university's policies and practices contributed to students' risk of sexual assault.

Under the resolution agreement with OCR, the university is obligated to provide counseling and other support that would address any emotional, psychological, academic, or employment issues" faced by the complaining student as a result of the university’s delay in processing her complaint.  Additionally, the university must develop a procedure to document sexual assault and harassment complaints it receives, strengthen coordination between the campus police and Title IX coordinator, enhance its grievance procedures, and submit to ongoing monitoring by the OCR.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Government Sides With Plaintiff in Case that Tests Title IX's Application to Off-Campus Sexual Assault

Recently, the federal government sided with two Title IX plaintiffs in ongoing litigation against Kansas State University that challenges the institution's failure to respond to reports of sexual assault committed at off-campus fraternity houses.

The federal court's eventual decision in two pending cases will address an important issues of Title IX's scope. So it is noteworthy that the Department of Justice and the Department of Education submitted amicus briefs to challenge the university's contention that its obligations under Title IX do not apply to off-campus conduct.  The government argues that when Title IX uses the word "programs" in describing the statute's reach, it includes the house and events of a school-recognized fraternity, just like it applies to other off-campus activities like study-abroad programs and extracurricular activities that are still subject to the university's control. Moreover, the government argues that the university itself claims that its fraternities are part of the university in its marketing to prospective students, and exerts the requisite "substantial control" to prevent and respond to sexual assault that occurs at fraternities, in that the accused are students who are subject to the university disciplinary process and the fraternity itself relies on the university for ongoing recognition. In fact, the university demonstrates this control by sanctioning the accused student for alcohol violations, but not rape.

Clearly the government is watching this case closely, as we are as well.

Settlement at Tennessee

News broke this morning that there will be no trial (originally scheduled for spring 2018) in the Title IX lawsuit against the University of Tennessee. UT will pay just under $2.5 million to the eight women who brought the lawsuit.

As is the case in most settlements, the university admits no wrongdoing. Money for the settlement will be drawn from both central administration and athletics. Stories suggest that no taxpayer money will be used, but at a state university I wonder how easy it is to keep it all separated.

From the plantiffs' lawyer:
We are satisfied that, while universities everywhere struggle with these issues, the University of Tennessee has made significant progress in the way they educate and respond to sexual assault cases. My clients and I are also convinced that the University's leadership is truly committed to continue its exemplary efforts to create a model as it relates to sexual misconduct.

From UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek:
Like many institutions, we are not perfect, but our goal is to continue to be the best we can be at creating awareness, educating and preventing discrimination and abuse in any form and to continue to be equally prepared when it does happen and to deal with it promptly, sensitively, fairly and effectively. We've come a long way in recent years, and we are working every day to be even better.

No one listed the measures UT has taken to ensure that Title IX is being correctly and effectively implemented.

ESPN has a list of the specific incidents here. But as a reminder, these date back to the mid-90s and involved UT athletes who were either not investigated or not punished for sexual assault.

As a wrap-up, I want to note the trends or similarities that these charges have with other cases we have covered.
1. Athletes have special protections. These manifested in the following ways in this case: not being investigated; found guilty but not punished or lightly punished; other entities intimidating victims discouraging them from filing complaints or charges (in this case it was teammates of perpetrators).

2. Passing the buck: In at least one case at UT, an offending athlete was found guilty, allowed to finish out his season and then transfer. Remember, the SEC passed a rule that prevents member schools from accepting transfer athletes who have histories of sexual assault. Apparently, they have no issue sending those students to non-SEC schools.

3. Female athletes as victims. Because tracking the intricacies of sexual assault is difficult--at best, we don't know how many perpetrators are athletes nor do we know are many victims are athletes and at what level they play. But UT is not the first time we have heard about male athletes at DI institutions assaulting female athletes with few repercussions (Missouri, Iowa, New Mexico). Keeping things in the "family" (i.e., athletics department) clearly has serious negative consequences. Female athletes are pressured not to report assaults; they are told things will be handled internally. In this case, that pressure was also exerted on a male athlete who attempted to come to the defense of one of the victims and was assaulted and called a traitor by Coach Butch Jones (Jones denies this.).