What is it?
Please note: The purpose of this Know Your Rights Guide is to help you understand your rights and options if you are experiencing gender discrimination at school. This guide is not legal advice. Laws and legal rules frequently change and can be interpreted in different ways, so Equal Rights Advocates cannot guarantee that all of the information in this Guide is accurate as it applies to your situation. If you would like to get information or advice about your specific situation, please fill out this form to make an appointment with one of ERA’s trained legal counselors. All services provided through ERA’s Advice & Counseling program are free and confidential.
Gender discrimination at school comes in many different forms, but usually it is when you are treated differently and worse at school because of your actual or perceived gender or gender identity. Gender discrimination at school could look like:
- Being treated differently because of your gender, or because you do not conform to traditional notions of femininity or masculinity. For example, rules that apply only to one gender
- Offensive and gendered remarks made about women, men, girls, boys, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming people in your presence. For example, comments that girls are not as good at math as boys
- Being called derogatory names related to your sexual orientation
- Being misgendered by classmates or teachers
- Being told by a teacher that they expect more (or less) of you because you are a girl, boy, or nonbinary person
- Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature (Please see our Sexual Harassment Know Your Rights Guide)
What are the laws?
1. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972: It is illegal for a school, university, or school district to discriminate against you based on your sex, race, color, religion, or national origin. “Sex” includes a person’s actual or perceived gender assigned at birth, gender identity, and sexual orientation, because this type of discrimination is based on outdated sex stereotypes and expectations. Title IX protects students’ access to education, and makes it illegal for any student to be denied that access on the basis of sex.
- Under Title IX, it is also illegal for a school to retaliate against (punish) you for reporting or opposing gender discrimination, or participating in an investigation or legal action related to discrimination. Examples of retaliation at school can include being disciplined, withholding your transcript, removing you from classes or sports teams, and/or restricting your ability to move around campus.
- Title IX also protects school staff and faculty from gender-based discrimination. However, workplace protections under other federal laws are typically stronger for staff/faculty. (If you work at a school, please see our Gender Discrimination at Work Know Your Rights Guide).
- Sexual harassment is also prohibited by Title IX because it is based on gender and interferes with a student’s access to education. Sexual assault is a severe form of sexual harassment and is also illegal under Title IX. (Please see our Sexual Assault & Harassment Know Your Rights Guide).
- How to know if Title IX applies to you/your school: Title IX applies to all schools, colleges, school programs (including school-affiliated sports teams, programs, and clubs), and any other educational program (including prison diploma programs or construction trade training programs) as long as the school or program receives federal funding. If the school or program receives any federal funding, the entire school or program must comply with Title IX, not just the specific program receiving the federal funding.
- “Federal funding” is very broad and includes any federal benefit, such as tax discounts, discounted land, or federal financial student aid. Schools that receive federal grants for research must comply with Title IX. For this reason, many private and even religious schools are required to follow Title IX because they receive some form of federal funding. An ERA team member can help you if you are not sure whether your school receives any federal funding or how to find that out. To request a phone appointment with a legal advocate, fill out this form.
2. California has a law very similar to Title IX that is even more protective. It makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of “disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation,… [and] immigration status” ( Educ. Code § 220). If you attend a school in California that receives any benefits from the State (such as tax discounts or discounted land) or any state financial assistance (including financial aid to students), then your school must comply with this law as well.
What are my rights?
You have the right:
1. To have equal access to your education and school programs (including sports) without disruptions caused by gender discrimination. Your school is required by law to provide a safe learning environment that is not “hostile” to you, which includes creating an environment that is free from discrimination and harassment.
2. To be told about your school’s policies on gender discrimination — including how to report — in a way that you understand. Legally, your school must share (or make available) its policies on gender discrimination with every student, teacher, and staff member. (Those policies may be in the student handbook, HR manual, or school board policies.) Your school must also provide students with information about how to report discrimination, sometimes known as a “grievance procedure,” and who to report to. This policy should tell you what happens after you report, including how the investigation will go, and what “interim measures” are available from the school to help you feel safe during the investigation. Interim measures can include things like more time to complete assignments, or protective measures to keep other students or teachers who may have harmed you away from you.
- Information about your school’s policies, how to report gender discrimination, and what the investigative process looks like should also be easy to find and access online, as well as the name and contact information of your school’s Title IX Coordinator.
3. To an adviser of your choosing. You are entitled to select an adviser to help guide and support you through the Title IX investigation process. This can be a friend or family member, therapist or social worker, or a legal advocate or attorney. Your school may require you to fill out a form in order to appoint this person as your adviser. To speak with an ENOUGH advocate about becoming your adviser, fill out this form.
4. To talk to anyone you want about the discrimination if it happened to you. You also have the right to speak out against discrimination at your school, or to speak out against a school policy or practice that is discriminatory. It is also illegal for your school to retaliate against (punish) you for talking with other students, faculty, or staff about discrimination, as long as you are not disrupting anyone else’s education.
- Note: Other laws may require that confidential information – such as the contents of an investigative report – be kept confidential and not shared with anyone other than an advisor or attorney. You can always tell your own story about what happened, as long as you do not share confidential information from the report, for example.
5. To report the discriminatory behavior to a school official, including a professor, teacher, coach or faculty member. Be aware that if you tell a teacher, professor, coach, or school official about the discrimination, they may be required to report it to a higher-up person at your school so that it can be investigated. If you are under the age of 18 and report sexual violence or other abuse, the teacher, professor, coach, or school official may also be required to report the conduct to law enforcement as “mandated reporters.”
- Tip: If you do choose to report, we recommend reporting in writing (email or letter) and making copies for yourself. (For more on how to report gender discrimination in writing, see the What Can I Do? section below.)
6. To report the behavior without telling the person who is discriminating about it beforehand. You do not have to tell the person who is doing the discriminating that you are going to report them to your school or that you are going to file a Title IX complaint. You do not even have to tell them after you report them or file the complaint, but they will find out if the school opens an investigation, so be prepared. The school has a legal obligation to let them know that a complaint was made against them.
7. To warn the person who is doing the discriminating that you are considering filing a Title IX complaint. It is OK to “threaten” reporting and then decide not to report if you are satisfied that the discriminatory behavior has stopped, or if you change your mind about reporting. You do not have to report just because you told your peers that you might. But again, remember that many school employees must make a “mandated report” to law enforcement of abuse they become aware of, and other employees are required to notify the Title IX office as soon as they become aware of the conduct.
8. To file a Title IX complaint, and to have it taken seriously and investigated by your school. Once your school is aware of the discrimination, the law requires them to take quick steps to stop the discrimination, address any negative effects the discrimination had on you, and prevent it from occurring again.
You can report the incident (called “making a Title IX complaint”) to your school and request that they take action. Title IX requires that schools investigate and put an end to gender discrimination “promptly and equitably” (aka “quickly and fairly). This means your school should not delay in addressing the discrimination, and they should take effective steps to address and end the discrimination, and prevent it from happening again.
Unless you report during a school closure or holiday, it should not take more than a few days for the Title IX Office to process your report and begin an investigation. The entire investigation can take between a few weeks and a few months to complete, depending on the complexity of the issues and number of witnesses involved. If the investigation takes longer than a few months, your school may be breaking the law by not complying with the “promptness” requirement of Title IX.
- Note: Title IX is a type of student misconduct complaints, so the Title IX process will take place at your school only. It is not connected to the criminal justice system, so it does not involve police or the court (unless you’re under the age of 18 and report sexual violence or abuse to a teacher or staff member. In that case, they may be required under “mandating reporting” laws to tell law enforcement or Child Protective Services.)
9. To participate in a Title IX investigation or be a witness for someone else. Whether it is an investigation into something that happened to you, or to someone else, you have a right to participate without barriers or retaliation — even if the claims end up being dismissed, or the investigation determines that discriminatory behavior didn’t occur.
10. To do absolutely nothing. It is a perfectly acceptable choice to do nothing about the discrimination you experienced. It is 100% your decision whether or not to come forward about your experiences. If you decide you are ready to talk, we are ready to listen. Make an appointment with an ENOUGH advocate.
What can I do?
If you or someone you know is experiencing gender discrimination at school, here are some actions you could take. Remember: It is normal to be afraid or worried about doing something to address the discriminatory behavior. Do what is right for you. These are just examples of some options you have.
1. Look at your school’s policies on sexual misconduct and the Title IX complaint process. Most schools have a Student Handbook or Code of Conduct. You may have received it when you started at the school, and it may be available on your school’s website. Look through these policies to figure out what options you have. The policy should include information about how to report the misconduct. Pay close attention to deadlines.
- If you cannot find your school’s policies online, you should be able to locate the name and contact information of your school’s Title IX Coordinator. You can reach out to this person to ask them for a copy of the school’s discrimination policies and Title IX grievance procedure.
- If it looks like your school does not have policies at all, or if you think their policies do not meet the requirements of Title IX, please contact us. Not having policies, or having legally inadequate policies, is a violation of Title IX. If you are looking into the policies of a K-12 school, our checklist might help you evaluate your school’s policies.
2. Report the discriminatory behavior to a school official. You can report discriminatory behavior to a trusted teacher, your RA, academic adviser, coach, guidance counselor, or any other school employee or official, including the Title IX Coordinator. But remember: If you tell a teacher, professor, adviser, or counselor about sexual assault, they may be required by law to make a “mandated report” to law enforcement. Even if mandated reporting laws do not apply, the school employee may be required to relay your report to the Title IX office, even if you choose not to go forward with your complaint.
- If you decide to officially report and have the school investigate, we recommend submitting your report in writing, whether through an email or a letter that you give to the Title IX Coordinator personally. Be sure to keep copies for yourself. This report should include what happened, the date and time, place, and who was involved.
- If you report verbally (not in writing) in-person or on the phone, we recommend sending a follow-up email or letter confirming what happened during the conversation. For example:
- Dear [name of Title IX coordinator or school official], I’m writing to confirm that we met/talked on the phone today, [date], to discuss the fact that I am/was experiencing gender discrimination from [name] on [date(s) or date range]. You told me that you would [what they said they would do] by [date]. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me about this issue. Please let me know if you have any further questions for me and what you expect the timeline of your investigation to be. Sincerely, [Your name]”
- Report the discrimination anonymously. If you do not want to proceed with a complaint, but you want your school to know what happened, you can make an anonymous report. Alternatively, you can make a report using your name and the other party’s name, but tell your school that you choose not to proceed with an investigation. Be aware that, once the school has information about the conduct, they may have to conduct an investigation anyway, with or without your participation.
3. Write everything down. If you are thinking of filing a Title IX complaint, you should write down what happened as soon as you can so you don’t forget any details.
- Write down in detail what happened when the discrimination occurred, including the date and time, where it occurred, what exactly was said or done, who said/did it, what you said or did, and any witnesses that were there. Include every incident of discrimination you can remember. If new incidents occur, write them down as soon as you can.
- If you think the other party or your school retaliated against (punished or intimidated) you for reporting, keep detailed notes of every action that happened, including who, when, where, and any witnesses to the retaliatory actions or threats.
- Save any emails, texts, letters, or messages from the person who is discriminating against you, or any messages you sent to someone else about the incident. Gather them all in one place.
- Keep notes about any conversations or meetings you had about the discrimination, including with a teacher, Title IX officer, RA, coach, school official, or the person doing the discriminating. Note the time, date, and place of the meeting, and who was there. If you’re comfortable doing so, ask any witnesses to write down what they heard or saw. Keep these written accounts at home, on a personal email account, or in another safe place.
- Tip: Others may read these written records at some point. So it’s important to be as objective as possible when writing down what happened. It is best to stick to the facts when possible.
- Keep copies of all documents, emails, or letters regarding your report, the investigation, the Title IX complaint, and any other related files, including copies of your responses.
- Use your personal email address to communicate with witnesses or advisers/attorneys about the incident. Your school might have access to your school email address, and this is the best way to keep those communications confidential.
4. Talk to an ENOUGH legal advocate. Fill out our online form to be connected with an ENOUGH advocate, lawyers who are here for you and can give you free legal information, tell you what your rights and options are, and potentially provide legal representation.
5. File a Complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). If you feel your school mishandled your Title IX complaint, or if you feel their policies or practices are not in compliance with Title IX, you can submit a complaint to OCR, which is the agency in charge of ensuring schools comply with Title IX. OCR will investigate and make findings, including reaching agreements with the school or ordering the school to take certain steps to become compliant. You can file a complaint or fill out this form to speak with an ENOUGH advocate about potentially helping you file a complaint.
6. File a Civil Complaint in Court. If you feel your school mishandled your Title IX complaint, and that this caused you harm or to incur expenses (such as moving expenses or medical expenses), you could file a complaint in civil court against your school for violating Title IX. While everyone is entitled to represent themselves in these cases, we recommend you speak with an attorney about your case to determine whether this is the best option for you. To speak with an ENOUGH advocate about your case, please fill out this form.
7. If your school does any of the following after you report, it is illegal, and you have the right to seek legal action against the school:
- They ignore or dismiss you
- They don’t investigate, or tell you they’re not required to investigate your complaint (for example, if they claim that Title IX does not apply to them) when in fact they might be
- The investigation is delayed, or drag son for too long
- They try to get you to drop your complaint
- They don’t offer you protection should you need it
- They investigate your complaint, but don’t take action to fix the negative impact the discrimination had, such as providing counseling, academic support, or making needed accommodations (like re-taking a test, for example)
- They treat you badly after you report, for example disciplining you, silencing you, making you feel as if it was your fault, or making changes to your class schedule or housing that negatively affect you
- Other examples of how your school could retaliate against (punish or intimidate) you include
- If you are asked to switch classes or move dorms;
- If the school restricts your ability to go to certain places at certain times;
- If someone threatens you, tries to make you drop the complaint/investigation, intimidates you, or coerces you (promises you something in exchange for dropping the complaint/investigation);
- If you work at the school or school program, and you are fired or demoted, receive a pay cut or a reduction of hours or benefits, are assigned a different shift, location, or position, receive new or different duties, or are asked to take time off.
- Other examples of how your school could retaliate against (punish or intimidate) you include
If your school did any of the above, or if your school made things even worse for you after you reported (known as “institutional betrayal”), you could take legal action.
What could happen?
What to expect from a Title IX investigation
The process at every school is different, and can even be different at campuses within the same university system, but most follow the same basic procedure:
1. Initial interview: Once a complaint is made, the Title IX office will reach out to conduct an initial interview with you (the victim of discrimination) to gain further information. This interview will form the basis of your complaint, so it is important to be clear, to include any details you can remember, and to let the employee know when you are unsure about something.
- At this point, a school official or the Title IX Coordinator should provide you with information on the investigation process, your rights and options to request interim measures and have an adviser assist you, and counseling or academic services available at this initial meeting.
2. Investigator interviews: After the initial interview, an investigator may be assigned to your case. The other party (the person who discriminated against you) will be notified and interviewed. The investigator will then interview any witnesses and receive any evidence provided.
3. Follow-up questions: The investigator may follow up with you regarding questions that came up during their investigation, or to allow you to rebut (oppose) statements made or evidence provided by the other party or witnesses.
4. Evidence review: Once the investigator completes the process of interviewing everyone involved, they will most likely send summaries of the witness statements and any evidence to both parties for the evidence review. This is your opportunity to correct anything misstated, to rebut (oppose) any false statements by the other party or their witnesses, or to comment on the relevance of evidence or why the investigator should not consider certain evidence.
5. Issuing a determination: Once the evidence review period is complete, the investigator (or a different administrator) will make a determination as to whether or not the misconduct violation took place. This is based on a “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning that it is more likely true than not true that it occurred. If, by this standard, the school finds that the discrimination occurred, it will also recommend a sanction.
6. Possible hearing: Depending on what state you are located in, whether your allegations include sexual violence, and whether the other party is a student or an employee, there may be a hearing after the determination is made. You may or may not have a right to appear at this hearing, and the other party may or may not have the opportunity to ask you questions about your allegations.
7. Option to appeal: Once a decision has been made about what happened and what disciplinary action should be taken, both parties typically have the right to appeal the decision to the Chancellor or some other officer at the school. Appeals are typically made because the disciplinary action taken by the school was not appropriate (either too big or too small), the evidence does not support the finding that was made, there was some procedural error in the investigation or hearing, and/or there is new evidence that should be considered which could change the outcome. The case might be sent back to the investigator to fix any errors that occurred, the decision could be overturned and replaced with a new decision, or the decision could be affirmed and kept in place.