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How to Know When You Have Suffered Unlawful Title IX Retaliation from Your School

Fear of retaliation is often the biggest reason students decide not to report Title IX violations on college campuses. If you have stepped forward and taken action to improve the environment at your school, you deserve to be congratulated, not punished. But we know that’s not usually how it works.

A Title IX allegation makes a school look bad. It can put important people or programs at risk. The institution might want to hush up the incident. Or a coach, professor or department may try to hide potential problems from their superiors. It is also possible that your complaint simply made someone unreasonably angry. Regardless of the reason, you may find yourself subject to unfair treatment. 

How can you tell if that treatment amounts to illegal retaliation? And if so, what can you do about it? The best way to protect your rights is to talk to an attorney experienced in handling Title IX proceedings on campus and in the courts. But for background, we can offer some general information about Title IX retaliation.

Retaliation is a Form of Discrimination

Title IX protects students against discrimination on the basis of sex which includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual stereotypes. The law prohibits schools from taking many different types of discriminatory actions. Students are supposed to enjoy an equal right to educational opportunities. 

Not only does the law protect students’ rights to enjoy educational opportunities, but it also protects their rights to stand up for themselves. Schools cannot punish students when they exercise their rights under Title IX. If a student files a complaint or participates in an investigation, the school is not permitted to retaliate against them. Retaliatory actions are a type of illegal discrimination.

Recognizing Retaliation

The law’s protections against retaliation are only effective if students recognize that an action is retaliatory. Retaliation may consist of overt acts, but it can also be subtle. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights lists the following actions as examples of discrimination:

  • Giving failing grades
  • Preventing participation in school activities
  • Threatening to expel a student

These are extreme instances and certainly not the only types of actions that can be considered illegal retaliation. For example, instead of preventing a student from participating in an activity entirely, a leader or coach might decrease the student’s playing time, move them to another position, or assign them undesirable tasks. 

A professor might give students extra assignments, shorten deadlines, refuse accommodations allowed to other students, or give inexplicably lower grades for similar work. A student might be treated adversely in campus employment, lose scholarship money, or be denied campus housing. Staff members can also be subject to illegal retaliation for enforcing their Title IX right or helping others to do so. Sometimes, one incident alone may be coincidental, but a pattern of conduct against a student or staff member can indicate that they are being subjected to illegal retaliation.

What to Do if You Suspect Retaliation

Evidence is crucial in any Title IX case, including claims involving retaliation. When a student believes a professor, coach, or administrator may be acting against them illegally, it is important to keep detailed records.

Write down information about each incident, including the date and time it occurred. Include information about anyone who may have witnessed an incident or who may otherwise have knowledge about it and be able to corroborate your statement. In addition, save copies of all text messages, voicemail messages, emails, or written correspondence from individuals who may be involved in a scheme of retaliation. Even if a message does not seem to be directly connected with retaliatory action, it could fit together with other evidence to demonstrate retaliation.

You should report your concerns to the school’s Title IX coordinator. However, since that office may be part of the problem rather than the solution, it is probably a good idea to talk to an attorney who can advise you on the best way to approach the office and frame your concerns. Time to file a claim will be limited, so it is best to start acting sooner rather than later.

Proving Title IX Retaliation

There’s no denying that proving Title IX retaliation is a challenge. A professor can find any reason for giving you a bad grade. A coach will insist that your performance or attitude is why you’re suddenly sitting on the bench. No one will come out and admit that they are treating you differently because you filed a complaint. You will need to prove that the actual motive behind the actions was retaliatory. You need evidence, and you need to present that evidence persuasively. This is where the assistance of an experienced attorney can prove invaluable.

Specifically, you need to show that:

  • You made a complaint (formally or informally)
  • You suffered an adverse consequence
  • The consequence was motivated by your complaint

Proving that you registered a complaint should be straightforward. The negative consequence you suffered as a result of the complaint will need to be something specific, such as reduced playing time on a team or a lower grade in a class. If your coach gave you repeated dirty looks and muttered comments as you walked by, that is probably not enough to support a retaliation claim. Of course, as noted above, the most significant difficulty is proving the connection between the adverse consequence and the complaint. All evidence of communication can be vital to support your claim.

An Experienced Legal Advisor Can Make All the Difference

When you are subjected to retaliation for filing or supporting a Title IX claim, it adds insult to injury. By taking action, you can stop institutional compliance with wrongdoing on campus. However, you need to be ready for a challenge.

The best step you can take to protect your rights is to consult a lawyer familiar with handling Title IX retaliation claims. At Duffy Law, we are committed to promoting the Title IX ideals of fairness for all students and staff, whether they are claimants or respondents. If you believe you have been subjected to illegal retaliation or if you are being wrongfully accused of retaliation, we are ready to fight to protect your interests with the best evidence to support your position. Contact us today for a confidential consultation to learn more about how our team can help.

Felice Duffy

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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.