At the beginning of last week, Donald Trump was President of the United States and we were being flooded with last minute Title IX and civil rights guidance from the outgoing Department of Education. As we near the end of the week, Joseph Biden is President and we are digesting a long list of senior political appointees for the department and executive orders signaling a reversal on approaches to racial and LGBTQ equality within federal agencies. Where we are now, what do you need to know and do, and what is expected to come? This is the first part of a multi-part series addressing some of the last gasps of the Trump administration and the opening salvos of the Biden administration and what they mean for school leaders under Title IX.

Part 1: Title IX and Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation After Bostock

Anyone keeping watch on the Department of Education’s actions in the past few weeks knows that the outgoing administration did not intend to go quietly into the night. Instead, we saw a flurry of guidance and other documents issued up to the very final moments of the administration in the realms of civil rights and Title IX. An important example was a  January 8, 2021 memorandum from the Department’s Office of General Counsel stating that LGBTQ students are not covered by Title IX.

Continue Reading Last Gasps and Opening Salvos: The End and Beginning of a New Era in Title IX, Part 1

In 2017, a high school cheerleader learned she had not made the varsity team and turned to Snapchat. She posted a picture of herself and a friend, middle fingers up, with the text “f— school f— softball f— cheer f— everything.” She was subsequently suspended from the Junior Varsity cheer team. Little did she know that her frustrated message would lead to the first U.S. Supreme Court case to address the limits of school discipline for student off-campus, online speech.

Yet, last Friday, the Supreme Court decided to hear the student’s challenge to the school’s discipline for her Snapchat post. I have been writing about the scope of K-12 schools’ authority to discipline students for off-campus, online misconduct for a long time. The Supreme Court has long refused to take on similar cases, despite pleas from administrators for better guidance on their rights. The result is that courts have reached different decisions in different parts of the country, making it even more challenging for schools to apply the standards correctly.

It is exciting to think that the Supreme Court may finally give direction to educators on this issue. Hopefully, they will answer important questions like whether the Tinker standard for substantial disruption applies to off-campus online misconduct and what, if any, nexus is required to impose discipline.

What should school leaders do about this issue now? School leaders in most jurisdictions should wait on the Court’s decision before making any changes to policies and procedures. Those of us who advise K-12 schools know how important the authority to discipline for off-campus, online speech can be to maintaining order in a school building and hope that the Supreme Court will agree. Until then, it is more important than ever to reach out to legal counsel for assistance in understanding what, if any, discipline can be imposed for off-campus, online incidents, including those involving Title IX. Keep reading this post for more insight and analysis of this important decision.
Continue Reading Supreme Court (Finally) Will Address School Discipline for Off-Campus, Online Student Speech

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) replaced the 2016 Clery Act Handbook (Handbook) with the new Clery Act Appendix for FSA Handbook (Appendix). The Appendix rescinds previous ED guidance interpreting Clery Act regulations, leaving higher education institutions with 13 pages of sub-regulatory guidance. While the contents of the Appendix do not have a binding effect on institutions, the ED stated that its intent was to provide clarity regarding existing Clery Act statutory and regulatory requirements. The following Q&A addresses questions that may arise when reviewing the recent changes to Clery Act guidance.

Continue Reading Q&A: What the U.S. Department of Education’s New Clery Act Appendix Really Means for Colleges’ and Universities’ Clery Act Compliance Efforts

As a Presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised that, if elected, he would put a “quick end” to the Trump administration’s 2020 Title IX rule on sexual harassment. Now, Biden is the projected winner of the 2020 Presidential election.  What does that mean for Title IX and, most importantly, for the schools, colleges, and universities that must comply with it? The Trump administration used rulemaking to update Title IX, not the more-easily discardable informal guidance used by the Obama administration. Unwinding this complicated new system will be challenging, and doing it in a way that protects the educational institutions who must comply with the law is essential. This post contains key questions and answers for school leaders about what the election results mean for Title IX.

Continue Reading What Comes Next? Title IX Under a Biden Presidency

When it issued its final Title IX regulations in May 2020, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said in the preamble to the rules that it would not enforce the final rules retroactively. It repeated that position in a blog post on August 5, 2020, saying unequivocally that “the Rule governs how schools must respond to sexual harassment that allegedly occurs on or after August 14, 2020.” Schools, colleges, and universities rightfully understood that they should use their old Title IX procedures to address conduct occurring before August 14, 2020.

A recent court decision from the Northern District of New York has called that understanding of the new regulations into serious doubt. The court refused to grant OCR any real deference on whether educational institutions should use new Title IX procedures for pre-August 14 conduct. There are some critical features of the case that schools, colleges, and universities can rely on to support using old Title IX procedures for conduct that occurred before the effective date of the new rules. But there is no question that the decision increases the risk of legal challenges by respondents against their schools for using old procedures in ongoing or new cases. Educational institutions should work with legal counsel to address whether the court’s decision necessitates changes to the processing of existing or future complaints under Title IX.
Continue Reading Are the New Title IX Regulations Retroactive? One Court Says Yes

On October 7, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a blog post clarifying the definitions of “sexual assault,” “dating violence,” “domestic violence,” and “stalking” under Title IX. Your educational institution should review its policies and procedures to include this important information. Any revisions should be posted on your institution’s website along with other procedures. For K-12 institutions that use the Illinois Association of School Board’s PRESS policies, our team has revised PRESS 2:265 Exhibit 1 (E1) to address these important changes. Contact TitleIX@Franczek.com or your Franczek attorney to obtain a copy of the revised procedure.

Continue Reading OCR Clarifies VAWA “Big Five” Definitions Under Title IX, Warranting Revised Procedures

clockOn September 28, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released new technical assistance for elementary and secondary schools concerning COVID-19. The document, Questions and Answers for K-12 Public Schools in the Current COVID-19 Environment, provides OCR’s perspective on schools’ obligations under civil rights laws as schools continue to decide how to provide educational services during the pandemic. Notably for our purposes, OCR addresses how schools should handle Title IX complaints during the COVID-19 crisis. Notably, the Q&A indicates that OCR will defer to educational institutions as to whether there is a good reason to delay Title IX processes because of COVID-19. Such delays should only be temporary and should balance the interests of promptness, fairness to the parties, and accuracy of adjudications.

Continue Reading OCR Q&A Addresses Title IX, K-12 Schools, and COVID-19

On September 8, 2020, an Education Dive article quoted me about two recent letters from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on the impact on Title IX of this year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on sexual orientation discrimination in employment. OCR’s position: Title IX, like Title VII, now protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. But that does not mean that schools can grant transgender students equal access to sex-segregated facilities or sports teams, says OCR. Media reports suggest the Department’s stated approaches are “totally at odds”–but are they? Here is a summary of the letters and why they seem pretty consistent, after all.
Continue Reading Is OCR’s New Approach to Trans Rights in Schools Really Inconsistent? Here’s Why It’s Not

ostrich head in sandFor anyone taking the ostrich approach to the Department of Education’s Title IX regulations—sticking their heads in the sand and hoping that a lawsuit will come along to blow these pesky regulations away—there may be some hope. Two recently-filed lawsuits, one by attorneys general from 17 states, including Illinois, and the District Columbia and another by the state of New York, seek to invalidate the new regulations under the Administrative Procedure Act or, at the very least, obtain an extension of the August 14, 2020 implementation date. Despite these and other pending lawsuits—including one from the ACLU filed in May—schools, colleges, and universities should continue to prepare to implement the new Title IX regulations on August 14, 2020. Educational institutions may wish to consider including language in new policies and procedures allowing quick changes if a challenge to the regulations proves successful. This would allow a return to governing documents currently in effect without normal delays inherent in educational policymaking if warranted by a court ruling.

Continue Reading Don’t Count on Lawsuits to Save Schools from the New Title IX Regs

It seems like all we talk about these days in the Title IX world is sexual harassment, as we scramble to implement new Title IX regulations that go into effect in August. Yet, this week brought significant news with respect to another side of Title IX—the rights of transgender students under the Federal law.

In a Letter of Impending Enforcement Action from May that came to light yesterday, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) threatened to take away federal funding from six Connecticut public high schools and the state’s athletics conference for allowing “biologically male” transgender female students to compete on girls athletic teams, which OCR found violates the Title IX rights of the cisgender female students on the teams. According to OCR, female students, unlike their male counterparts, were denied the ability to compete “on a level playing field” in athletics by not being allowed to compete against only cisgender female students.

We know that the Department has been pulling back on Title IX protections for transgender students for some time, so why is this news? Because as Title IX has become less useful for transgender advocates, they have turned to state laws (including in Illinois), which have been instrumental in the fight for access to facilities and activities based on gender identity in recent years.

Federal law generally preempts state law, however, so if Title IX prohibits providing equal access because of impacts on cisgender female students, schools may be required to disregard state law to avoid violating Title IX. Although the OCR decision appears to be limited to the realm of athletics, we have come to learn that with OCR these days, nothing is certain. This OCR letter, coupled with an imminent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in the Title VII case Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, threaten to drastically upset the certainty for educational institutions regarding the laws governing transgender rights in schools.
Continue Reading More Title IX Turmoil: OCR Athletics Decision Puts Transgender Rights in Flux