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

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

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

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on October 8 in three closely watched cases addressing whether Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination “because of … sex,” covers discrimination based on LGBT status. Commentators have recognized that these decisions may have important implications for Title IX, which prohibits discrimination “on the basis of sex” in education programs and activities receiving federal funds. As with Title VII, it is currently unsettled whether Title IX protects LGBT individuals. And courts interpreting Title IX often rely on decisions interpreting Title VII in reaching their decisions. In the oral argument in one of the cases, Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, questions by the Supreme Court Justices gave us even more reason to believe the case will impact the interpretation of Title IX as applied to transgender students.
Continue Reading Can a Transgender Female Student Compete on a Girls’ Sports Team? Supreme Court Justices Address the Question in LGBT Employment Case