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The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a new “guidance package” Friday to help colleges understand the requirements and expectations of their Title IX coordinators.

The package’s primary reminder: don’t forget to designate a coordinator for Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in the first place.

“A critical responsibility for schools under Title IX is to designate a well-qualified, well-trained Title IX coordinator and to give that coordinator the authority and support necessary to do the job,” Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement. “We hope that these documents will help schools understand their obligations under Title IX.” 

The package includes a new Dear Colleague letter, reminding institutions to hire a coordinator and explaining what their duties would be; a separate, more detailed letter addressed to coordinators; and a Title IX resource guide providing an overview of topics frequently handled by coordinators, including recruitment, admissions, financial assistance, gender-based harassment and violence, treatment of pregnant students, and counseling.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights is currently investigating more than 100 colleges and universities over allegations that they have failed to meet the requirements of Title IX, the gender discrimination law that requires institutions to quickly and competently investigate and adjudicate claims of sexual assault. 

These investigations have so far revealed “many recipients that have not designated a Title IX coordinator,” an OCR spokesperson said. 

Brett Sokolow, president of the NCHERM Group, a risk management firm that works with colleges, said that about 5 percent of colleges are either lacking a Title IX coordinator, don’t realize they need one or have not publicized that they have designated the position. He said “the real import” of the guidance, however, is that it was sent to K-12 districts as well, not just colleges. 

“K-12 is still the Wild West for Title IX, and OCR explicitly applied its previous standards, directed toward colleges, as applicable to K-12,” Sokolow said. 

Higher education may not be the Wild West that K-12 is, but Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Woman, said there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Despite all the attention given to the subject in recent years, some colleges are just now hiring Title IX coordinators. Brown University, for example, hired its first coordinator this month. 

And many institutions that have Title IX coordinators still don’t realize that their work expands past ensuring gender equity in athletics, Maatz said. 

“The reality is that Title IX is so much more than sports,” she said. “For campuses struggling with sexual assault, these are they tools that they need. It’s so wonderful to finally have a guide that coordinators can refer to now, that they can show to their supervisors and say, ‘this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ That’s a really huge development. This was sorely needed.”

Much of the guidance contained in the package is similar to what the OCR provides to colleges after an investigation has concluded they are in violation of Title IX, so the release of the documents signals an attempt by the office to become more proactive in offering technical assistance. 

Peter McDonough, interim general counsel for the American Council on Education, said that the office’s decision to release the new guidance without consulting with ACE or campuses was a disappointment. ACE only learned that the guidance was in the works the day before its release, he said. 

“Guidance to colleges and universities in this area can be most meaningful and effective when it is informed by folks on the campuses,” McDonough said in an email. “Not doing so here is disappointing, given that nondiscrimination is an area of deep institutional interest and commitment. If there is one thing we know, it is that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not optimal in this area. If the guidance is read as inflexible, and as inhibiting Title IX coordinators and their colleagues, including their presidents, from attending to the coordination of nondiscrimination obligations in ways that are most appropriate for each campus, it could prove to be a missed opportunity.”

Maatz said that, as the guidance is simply a detailed reminder of existing regulations and guidelines, there was no reason for OCR to consult with campuses. 

“There’s nothing here that should come as a surprise,” she said. “This is just a restatement in a really helpful resource package. I hope schools will welcome it, and see it as the great gift that it is.”

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