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Does the Definition of Sexual Harassment Differ from School to School?

In 1972, Congress passed a comprehensive federal civil rights law known as Title IX, that prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, in education. This law applies to both students and staff of educational institutions and programs that receive federal funding, including not only local school districts, but also colleges, universities, and for-profit schools. To learn more about Title IX and the protections it offers, please contact an experienced Title IX attorney who is well-versed in both state and federal law and can address your questions and concerns.

Who is Covered by Title IX?

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sexual harassment in any federally funded education program or activity, including:

  • State or local governmental entities;
  • Colleges, universities, postsecondary educational institutions, local educational agencies, vocational education programs, and public systems of higher education; and
  • Private entities whose principal business is to provide education.

It’s also important to note that if one of these entities receives funds from the federal government, then all of that entity’s operations will be subject to Title IX’s protections. If, for example, a public school district received funds under the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Act, the entire school district would be covered by the law, not just the component related to the drug abuse program. Similarly, if a college obtains financial assistance for students, then all of the college’s operations will fall under the purview of Title IX, not just the student financial assistance office.

Finally, Title IX’s protections from sexual harassment are not limited to traditional educational operations, but include other services and benefits provided by the school in question, including:

  • Extracurricular activities;
  • Athletic programs;
  • Faculty and student housing
  • Campus shuttle bus services; and
  • Commercial activities, such as bookstores and cafeterias.

These protections always apply to covered schools regardless of where the unlawful action occurred, including facilities on campus, school buses, in class, or at training programs sponsored by a school but located somewhere else.

Essentially, all public school districts are covered by Title IX because they receive financial assistance from the federal government in some way or operate federally sponsored education programs. Similarly, all public universities and colleges, and most private schools must also comply with the terms of Title IX because they usually participate in at least some federal student aid programs.

There are, however, some private establishments that don’t receive federal assistance, which means that Title IX does not technically apply to them. Similarly, some schools are specifically exempt from certain parts of the federal law, including educational institutions that are controlled by a religious organization. Even in these cases, however, the schools are only limited to the extent that Title IX would conflict with their religious beliefs.

How Does Title IX Define Sexual Harassment?

Title IX covers all forms of sexual harassment, which is defined as:

  • Any unwelcome sexual conduct, including unwelcome sexual advances and requests for sexual favors; and
  • Any verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

Federal law also prohibits sex-based harassment, which includes both verbal and nonverbal acts, as well as physical aggression, hostility, and intimidation as long as those acts are based on sex or gender stereotypes. This type of conduct falls under Title IX’s definition of sexual harassment, even if the acts don’t involve conduct of a sexual nature. Finally, sexual violence, which includes all physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will or while someone is incapable of giving consent, also falls under the federal definition of sexual harassment.

What Does Title IX Require?

Title IX requires schools to have policies in place that prohibit discrimination based on sex, including sexual violence and sexual harassment, as well as grievance procedures that provide for prompt resolution when incidents do occur. Schools that receive federal financial assistance are also required to investigate claims of sexual harassment, and if applicable, take prompt steps to:

  • Stop acts of sex discrimination, including harassment;
  • Prevent the recurrence of sex discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence; and
  • Address the effects of sexual harassment.

This includes hiring a coordinator who is tasked with monitoring compliance with federal law and is available to students, staff, and faculty to investigate and respond to allegations of sexual harassment. School administrators are also required to make accommodations and temporary measures for students who have filed claims of sexual harassment, which could include:

  • Changing class schedules;
  • Providing campus escorts; and
  • Prohibiting contact between certain students.

Another federal law, known as the Clery Act, also requires that schools annually update their policies and report the number of incidents of sexual assault on campus to the Department of Education.

What Does Title IX Leave to the Discretion of Schools? Do Title IX Rules Vary from School to School?

Although Title IX requires qualifying schools to comply with certain rules, the statute also gives these entities a lot of discretion when it comes to drafting written policies and creating specific campus procedures. For instance, the law does not specifically mandate that educational institutions take certain actions after receiving notice of a claim of sexual harassment. Instead, these entities are directed only to take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate what occurred, and if that investigation reveals that the claim is legitimate and meets the standard of a hostile environment, take prompt and effective steps that are reasonably calculated to end the harassment and prevent its recurrence.

Because what these steps entail is not specifically stated, educational institutions have wide latitude when creating their own reporting and investigation-related procedures. This can make it difficult to determine whether a school is in compliance with Title IX, so if you were harassed at school and believe that your case was not given the attention required by federal law, it is important to speak with an experienced Title IX lawyer who can explain your legal rights and options.

Contact Our New Haven Office Today

To speak with an experienced Title IX attorney about your own sexual harassment claim, please call Duffy Law, LLC at (203) 935-8835 or send us a message at inquiry@duffylawct.com today. A member of our team is standing by to assist you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so please don’t hesitate to call or contact us online at your earliest convenience.

Felice Duffy

Attorney Felice Duffy

Attorney At Duffy Law

Attorney Felice Duffy served as an Assistant United States Attorney for ten years after beginning her legal career at two prestigious firms (one in CT and one in NY) and then clerking for two federal judges. A life-long Title IX advocate, she brought a legal action under the then-new Title IX statute against UCONN while an undergraduate to compel the creation of its women’s varsity soccer program. She went on to become a first-team Division I All-American, was selected to be on the first U.S. National Women’s Team, and spent 10 years as Head Coach of the Yale women's soccer team. Attorney Duffy has Ph.D. in Education/Sports Psychology and has spoken to, and conducted trainings for, over 50 schools and organizations on a wide range of topics involving athletics, the law, and social justice. You can reach Felice at (203) 946-2000.
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