By Lauren Rosh
Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity, including athletics, that receives federal financial assistance. However, the statute lacks a provision for formal education about Title IX for administrators, students and parents, though it does require districts to have Title IX coordinators to monitor compliance.
That means each school district crafts its own Title IX training — if the district offers any.
“It was more of me learning [about Title IX] on the go and learning bits and pieces here and there, but I was never really taught about it until the issue came upon us,” said Madyson Roach, a former softball player at Grant High School in Portland, Oregon.
“If I was more educated, I could have used my voice more and advocated for change earlier than I started.”
Federal law does not mandate training in schools for Title IX and athletics. The only required training is on sexual harassment, according to Peg Pennepacker, founder of High School Title IX Consulting Services. That provision took effect in August 2020, about 48 years after Congress passed Title IX.
Patrick Nixon, the athletics director at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore, Maryland, is an example of a school staff member who does not have a solid understanding of a Title IX coordinator’s role. Nixon said the district’s Title IX coordinator has not stopped by Mergenthaler to evaluate the athletics department and provide feedback.
“I don’t know if that’s supposed to be happening, but that’s not happening,” Nixon said.
Some schools share their districts’ training materials with community members. McHenry Community High School in McHenry, Illinois, has links to the training materials on its website, though the primary focus is on Title IX and sexual harassment.
On the 126-slide PowerPoint presentation used to train Title IX coordinators, the word “athletics” appears once, as one of nine areas that fall under Title IX.
Grant High School in Portland, Oregon, where Roach went to school, provides a direct link to the Portland Public Schools website, which includes Title IX resources for students and parents.
Some school administrations across the country are taking steps to educate themselves, their teachers and their coaches, along with students and parents, to ensure they can provide equal educational opportunities. However, school administrators must do their own research to find resources to provide a more thorough education.
When the National Women’s Law Center’s Jayma Meyer, counsel at Simpson Thacher who does pro bono Title IX work, and her team approached Union City High School in New Jersey about its Title IX violations, the school was willing to make changes.
“They didn’t realize what they needed to do, or even why,” Meyer said. “But now that we’ve educated them, they really are committed to doing the right thing.”
Charles Webster, director of grants and innovative programming at Union City High, underwent training to become a Title IX coordinator a few years ago, the first time he experienced such training.
Since then, Webster has researched ways Union City High can update its Title IX education. The school is joining the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA), which allows institutions to pick a Title IX curriculum it would like to focus on and provides workshops on specific topics.
“I came out and made the recommendation that we join ATIXA because it is, it is progress,” Webster said. “It is an association that is relevant, that wants to remain relevant. And again, relevancy becomes the key.”
Some schools and districts have gone beyond basic Title IX education in other ways, especially with this year marking the 50th anniversary of the statute.
In Maryland, Amanda Twele, athletics director at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, established the Women in Sports Committee under Montgomery County’s Athletics Unit in the summer of 2020.
The committee’s first event in October 2020 highlighted Montgomery County public school graduates, and its second event in December 2020 had women share their involvement in athletics beyond playing a sport.
The committee held an event in February to celebrate the anniversary of the statute.
Union City also had aspirations to celebrate the milestone with a grand event at the high school. Union City decided not to wait until June and went ahead with its celebration conference in November 2021.
It held a five-hour event with speakers ranging from Meyer to Olympic athletes and coaches such as Sharrieffa Barksdale, Rose Monday, Marlene Harmon Wilcox and LaVonna Martin-Floreal, as well as a pediatrician and a guidance counselor with college recruiting expertise.
“I really enjoyed it,” said Francisca Polanco, a senior member of both the softball and basketball teams at Union City High. “I feel like I learned a lot with the presenters that came and spoke to us.”
Ellen Zavian, a Title IX advocate, was the first female agent registered by the NFL Players Association.
Zavian wanted to play soccer when she went to high school in the late 1970s, a few years after the statute went into effect. But she was told she couldn’t because there was only a boys team. So instead Zavian ran track, played volleyball and was a cheerleader, as those were options for girls.
“If I had known about Title IX, I definitely would have filed a suit against my school when I didn’t have the opportunity to play soccer,” Zavian said. “But I didn’t know about it.”
Zavian said kids in school today know what Title IX is, which wasn’t true when she was a student. Still, she said, students today are not taught how to use the law to their benefit.
“They’re still not empowered on how to utilize the law and execute it within their institution,” Zavian said.
That’s why some high school teachers, such as Timothy Leary from Rancho Buena Vista High School in California, are doing what they can to educate students so they can advocate for themselves.
Leary teaches a social studies class, and during a lesson about Title IX a light bulb went off for two of his students. After learning about the statute, they approached the school board to advocate for an on-campus softball field and facilities that matched those of the baseball team. The students came out with a win, although not without some obstacles, and a new softball field opened in February 2021.
“It’s definitely just the importance and the relevancy to my students that just makes it such a great educational tool,” Leary said. “They can relate to it. They need to learn it.”
Jaelyn Watson, Tatyana Monnay, Colleen Neely, Iman Hassen and Ashkan Motamedi contributed to this reporting.
This story was written and reported by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and The Shirley Povich Center For Sports Journalism, and it is part of a larger series investigating Title IX and high school sports.