Let the Girls Dance (and Dress!)? Title IX Implications for “Morality Codes” in Schools

By Jackie Gharapour Wernz

I know many of you may be wondering why this blog has been so quiet. Well, I took the summer off! And guess what, Summer just ended in Dallas this week, something that I was certainly not used to when living in Chicago. Now that it’s finally not 100+ degrees outside every day, my break is over and I am ready to tackle the fall.

My nine-year-old daughter started a new public school this year. I was very surprised when she came home from school a few days into the new academic year telling me that she had been “dress-coded” for her skirt being too short. Now, those of you who know me may not believe this, but this 5’4″ mama has a fourth grader who is already over 5 feet tall! She has long legs and a small waist, which makes buying skirts that meet the old “three-inches-above-the-knees” requirement nearly impossible. Also, she’s in fourth grade—is there really a risk that any fourth-grade boys are going to be so busy ogling her that they can’t focus on learning fractions and other elementary school topics? Shouldn’t she be told how big her brain is at school, not how distracting her body is to others?

This situation got me thinking about “morality codes” in schools. Whether you’re talking about dress codes, for which 90% of enforcement reportedly falls on girls, or other rules based on gender stereotypes about how girls should look or act, back to school is a perfect time to remind ourselves of Title IX’s limitations on these types of requirements. A recent story out of Louisiana provides a great backdrop for this discussion.

Texas AG Challenges Both Trump and Biden Administration Interpretations of Title IX for LGBTQIA Students in New Lawsuit

The Texas Attorney General’s Office has had a lot on its plate lately, including the suspension and impeachment of AG Ken Paxton. But it has taken on a new challenge this week with a broad lawsuit seeking to remove Title IX protections recognized by both the Trump and Biden administrations for LGBTQIA students.

Other lawsuits have challenged the Biden administration’s attempt to extend Title IX to sex-segregated sports teams, intimate facilities for transgender students, and even use of student pronouns. But the Texas lawsuit challenges the Department of Education’s interpretation of Title IX to protect LGBTQIA students from any discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

If a Federal court agrees with the lawsuit, it would remove protections for LGBTQIA students that both the Trump and Biden administrations have recognized since at least August 2020. Back then, the Trump administration’s Office for Civil Rights publicly opened a case for investigation alleging different treatment of a student for being gay, which had not been the policy of OCR before. Keep reading for what you need to know about the Texas AG’s lawsuit and its potential impact on schools in Texas and beyond.

Not So Fast: OCR’s Fact Sheet on DEI Efforts is Only Half the Story

On January 31, 2023, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a fact sheet clarifying that diversity, equity, and inclusion training and similar activities “are not generally or categorically prohibited” under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The OCR fact sheet provides a list of activities, such as DEI training, training on the impacts of racism or systemic racism, cultural competency and other nondiscrimination training, and using specific words, such as equity, discrimination, inclusion, diversity, systemic racism, or similar terms in school policies, programs, or activities. It says that Title VI does not “categorically” prohibit such activities and that deciding if there is a violation requires assessing the totality of the circumstances in each particular case.

According to OCR’s press release, it issued the fact sheet “in response to confusion regarding the legality of [DEI] activities in schools.” Although OCR does not elaborate, stories about the importance of conservative activism around how school teach racism abound. The issues are similar in the Title IX realm, with a small but mighty contingent of challengers to programs for girls such as coding camps, scholarships, grants, and mentorships claiming that such programs, which are aimed to remediate past and current discrimination against women in various spaces, are discriminatory against men.

Does OCR’s fact sheet remove the confusion? Not even close. Keep reading to find out why.

How to Make—and Keep—a Resolution to Prepare for the New Title IX Rules

We are barely into 2023, and it’s shaping up to be the biggest year yet for Title IX. From transgender bathroom bans and athletic participation battles to growing scrutiny on general athletics equity and pregnant and parenting students, Title IX will continue to have its moment in the sun in 2023 as it has for the past few years. Of course, the biggest news for Title IX in 2023 will undoubtedly be the issuance of the Biden administration’s new Title IX rule. The Department of Education recently confirmed that it intends to hoist the new regulation on schools in May 2023. Schools, colleges, and universities will once again have to comply with an entirely new grievance structure quickly over the summer.

Those who spent the summer of 2020 scrambling to prepare for the 2020 Title IX rules know that implementing new rules over the summer is a huge feat. If you haven’t already resolved to begin preparing now to be ready for that process when it comes, you should! Like any other New Year’s resolution, there is a risk of giving up without a plan. Don’t have one? Don’t worry. The Thompson & Horton Title IX team has you covered. Keep reading for the essential action plan to help you achieve your Title IX goals in the New Year.

Biden’s OCR Warns Schools to Not Discriminate Against Students and Employees Seeking Abortions

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently released a small guidance document with a big warning message to schools, colleges, and universities: Title IX requires educational institutions to protect their students and employees from discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, including pregnancy termination and recovery therefrom. That means schools cannot treat students or employees differently because they obtained an abortion. Schools must also treat abortion like any other temporary disability for hospital and medical benefits, services, plans, and policies. And, under Title IX, schools must provide leave to individuals for termination of pregnancy or recovery therefrom for as long as the student or employee’s physician says it is medically necessary. The guidance, issued on the 100th day after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, does not provide new law. But it is a clear warning to schools that specific actions concerning students and employees seeking or who have received abortions could lead to administrative enforcement from OCR.

What They Don’t Know Might Hurt You: Avoiding the Negative Impact of Journalistic Rushes to Judgment on Your Title IX Process 

By Jackie Gharapour Wernz

The renowned journalist and activist Ida B. Wells once said, “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”  

Today, however, journalism is quite different from before the turn of the century. Almost any story can be published, with no requirement that the writer understands, let alone includes, the full context of the issue. “Stories” sometimes “break” on social media threads, with no author or editor in sight to control unfettered opinions from being mistaken for “news.” And even in more established publications, the desire to offer the most sensationalistic coverage in the shortest amount of time creates an environment in which presenting the whole picture is often not the goal.  

The result in situations involving Title IX can be disastrous for schools, colleges, and universities. News outlets, bloggers, and social media posters present an incomplete and often inaccurate account of the Title IX process to your community. The results can range from a turnover churn of Title IX administrators (with recent reporting suggesting two-thirds of Title IX coordinators have been in their position for more than three years) to bomb threats 

What are the risks, and how can your school district, college, or university defend against or deal with such an incident?