By Adam W. Pittman on April 18, 2017
Sexual assault survivors across the country are filing Title IX lawsuits in a brave pursuit to hold their universities accountable. Through Title IX lawsuits, survivors inspire discussion and prompt positive changes in legislation and schools Title IX policies and procedures.
To establish a Title IX claim in a civil lawsuit against a university the claimant must prove four elements: (1) the school must be a Title IX funding recipient; (2) an “appropriate person” must have actual knowledge of the harassment the plaintiff alleges occurred; (3) the school must act with deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment in its programs or activities; and (4) the discrimination must be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars access to an equal opportunity to education.
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A complainant must show the school acted with deliberate indifference by proving that a school official with the ability to take corrective measures had actual notice of sexual harassment or an assault, and acted with conscious or reckless disregard. In other words, to bring a viable claim against the university, the plaintiff must prove that the school acted with utter disregard for known acts of sexual harassment or assaultive behavior.
Title IX has significantly evolved since President Richard Nixon first signed it into law in 1972. The original statute failed to even mention “sexual harassment.” It was not until 1977 in Alexander v. Yale University that Title IX was used in sexual harassment claims against a university. Five female law students filed a civil lawsuit after Yale refused to consider their sexual harassment complaints against male faculty. Although the women did not ultimately win their case, the school initiated a grievance procedure for survivors. This case established that sexual harassment of female students was considered “sex discrimination” as defined under Title IX. In addition, the case encouraged other universities to implement Title IX policies and procedures for sexual assault survivors.
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In 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools that money damages could be awarded to survivors of sexual harassment under Title IX. The school was held liable for a coach’s sexually harassing behavior towards a student. In a groundbreaking 1999 case, the Court addressed Title IX student-on-student sexual harassment in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. The court found a school liable where officials were on notice and repeatedly ignored ongoing sexual misconduct among two fifth grade students. This rule extended to federally funded schools across the country as the court found a Title IX violation amounting to deliberate indifference.
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Today many schools have Title IX complaints filed against them due to their burying and mishandling of cases. Cases involving college athletes have brought great publicity to institutional cover-ups as schools attempt to protect their athletic programs and funding while pushing student rights aside. Lawsuits involving star athletes like former Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston have garnered media attention and created public discourse. Schools like Florida State have been held responsible for prioritizing their star athletes over the survivor. Regardless of the status of the assailant, if the university does not follow appropriate policies and procedures to properly investigate and accommodate the survivor as required under Title IX, the school may be held liable.
Without case law establishing survivors’ legal rights and schools’ responsibilities to their students, survivors would be left without the justice they deserve. More survivors are encouraged to come forward and seek recourse against their university without fear of retaliation. Likewise, by initiating Title IX lawsuits more schools are held accountable for their improper Title IX policies, procedures, and investigations.
As universities throughout the country are forced to strengthen their Title IX policies, schools are held accountable when they fall short of Title IX requirements. Although the “deliberate indifference” standard under Title IX is a difficult standard for claimants to prove against the university, case law empowers survivors to seek action against their university to increase awareness and transparency on college campuses. Through numerous cases entering courthouses, the laws continue to evolve, bringing justice and aid for survivors while holding schools accountable under Title IX.
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 Complaint at 3, Kinsman v. The Florida State Univ. Bd. of Trustees, No. 4:15-cv-235 (N.D. Fla. Apr. 28, 2015); Edwin Rios and Madison Pauly, This Explosive Lawsuit Could Change How Colleges Deal With Athletes Accused of Sexual Assault, Mother Jones, (Mar. 3, 2016).