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The Trump administration is systematically attacking Title IX

On the 45th anniversary of the landmark legislation, there are reasons to worry about its future.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens at left as President Donald Trump speaks during a round table discussion at Saint Andrew Catholic School, Friday, March 3, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. CREDIT: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

by Lindsay Gibbs and Casey Quinlan

Friday marks the 45th anniversary of the passing of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prevents sex and gender discrimination in education.

Over the past decade, largely under the guidance of President Barack Obama, Title IX has been strengthened. The Obama administration added protections for transgender students and sexual assault victims to the statute, and repealed a Bush-era policy that allowed schools to rely solely on unscientific surveys to “prove” a lack of interest in starting a new women’s sport.

But as Title IX supporters celebrate how much the legislation has accomplished, particularly for women and girls in sports, many who have been closely monitoring the actions of President Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are extremely concerned about its future.

“There’s a sense that Title IX and girls participating in sports and gender equality is a done deal, when in fact the reality is it’s very fragile,” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic champion, civil rights lawyer, and founder of Champion Women, told ThinkProgress.

There is evidence from the past few months to suggest that Hogshead-Makar’s warning is not merely hyperbole. Trump’s budget proposal recommends a seven percent budget reduction for the Office for Civil Rights, which would force the department to slash approximately 27 jobs at a time when Title IX complaints are on the rise. The ratio of Title IX cases per investigative staff members in the OCR was 41 to 1 in fiscal year 2016, and that ratio will only become more lopsided if these cuts go into effect.

Additionally, DeVos has named Candice Jackson — a woman who once insisted she faced discrimination because she is white — as the deputy assistant secretary of the Office for Civil Rights. And DeVos has shown no signs that she will fight for members of any marginalized community.

If a law is only as good as its enforcement, then Title IX is in trouble.

The authority of Title IX seems to be trending in the wrong direction, and that could mean bad news for sexual assault victims on college campuses, transgender (and other LGBTQ) students, and equality in athletics.

Sexual assault

In 2001, the OCR issued a guidance that sexual harassment was considered a threat to students’ ability to pursue opportunities in education. In 2011, President Obama expanded that guidance and made it clear that sexual violence was considered sexual harassment.

The expanded guidance requires prompt investigation of the complaint, universities to have an established internal review procedure, and schools to provide accommodations and services to students who have been sexually assaulted. The creation of this guidance coincided with the advocacy work of survivors of campus sexual assault, and an increased public awareness of the epidemic — according to RAINN, 23 percent of female college students are raped or sexually assaulted on campus. Currently, there are 337 sexual violence cases being investigated by the OCR at 238 postsecondary institutions.

DeVos’ attitude towards civil rights investigations of how universities handle sexual assault cases has been murky, at best.

When specifically asked during her confirmation hearing in January if she would uphold the Obama-era guidance, DeVos responded, “It would be premature for me to do that today.”

CREDIT: AP Photo/Reed Saxon

Five months into the job, she still has not committed to upholding those guidances, and there are plenty of reasons to be concerned that she won’t.

For starters, the Dick and Betsy Devos Family Foundation donated tens of thousands of dollars to a group that has long opposed expanded rights for sexual assault survivors. Then, a couple months ago, the department picked Candice Jackson for deputy assistant secretary of the Office for Civil Rights. Jackson, who can serve in her deputy role without Senate confirmation for 210 days, once called women who accused President Donald Trump of sexual assault “fake victims.”

In April, which happened to be sexual assault awareness month, DeVos met with Earl Ehrhart, a Georgia state representative. Ehrhart recently pushed a bill that would prohibit universities from starting their own investigations unless police already did so, even though groups advocating for sexual assault survivors say that this would simply discourage students from reporting their rapes. It’s understandable, then, that DeVos’ decision to meet with Ehrhart — who told campus rape survivors to “go trigger somewhere else” if they were unhappy with the bill — angered advocates, particularly since DeVos has not responded to requests to meet with sexual assault survivors. (Though she did meet with Michigan’s first lady Sue Snyder to discuss the topic, details of that meeting were not made public.)

“It’s concerning to us and advocates to see the department both be wishy-washy in committing itself to all students’ civil rights and also being willing to sit down with pretty right-wing legislators at a moment when legislators are themselves passing legislation on the state level that would be incredibly harmful to young victims and students,” Mahroh Jahangiri, executive director of Know Your Title IX, told ThinkProgress.

To top things off, last week the department sent a memo to staff members with a directive to only look at individual cases, not systematic patterns of discrimination, when investigating a complaint.

“If you don’t take a systemic approach to these investigations and really look at the patterns then you will miss things.”

According to Jahangiri, limiting the scope of civil rights investigations would certainly harm survivors of sexual assault.

“[Systematic approaches to investigations] really addresses context around individual cases and is able to look at broader kinds of misconduct,” Jahangiri said. “That really helps survivors who are low-income, who don’t have access to legal representation, who still don’t know what their rights are, because those investigations will prompt schools to do better to protect all of their students, rather than a single student who came forward.”

Neena Chaudhry, Director of Education and Senior Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, agrees.

“If you don’t take a systemic approach to these investigations and really look at the patterns then you will miss things,” Chaudhry said.

LGBTQ rights

DeVos has always been seen as a threat to LGBTQ rights, and her actions so far have proven why. In February, the Trump administration rescinded Education Department guidance on the rights of transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender. It was a huge blow to the safety of trans students.

Last week, the OCR released a new guidance for trans students, but it is extremely murky, and does not address bathroom protections.

“[The new guidances for transgender students] are not clear in many ways, things are confusing; it does seem to focus on ways to dismiss complaints,” Chaudhry said.

LGBTQ students have much to fear from Trump’s Education pick Betsy DeVos

Although some of the more prominent court cases on transgender student rights, which concerned bathrooms, were listed as investigations that could possibly be dismissed, the memo listed the use of incorrect pronouns and other issues as areas where officers may have jurisdiction. Sharita Gruberg, senior policy analyst for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, said the memo left a lot of ambiguity for educators, parents, and trans students on what rights trans students have. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site affiliated with the Center for American Progress).

“Rescinding the guidance, and then the lack of clarity in the current position, leaves trans students vulnerable to discrimination at schools,” said Gruberg.

“Schools are not really aware of what their obligations are under the law and not everyone has the resources to bring litigation in court. Plus, that takes a while and there is a whole lot of trauma that can be inflicted on students in the meantime.”

This ambiguity is a problem. Hoghshead-Makar said the Obama administration provided a playbook for schools to follow when it comes to transgender students, but that playbook has essentially been ripped to shreds. Now, a population that is already one of the most targeted and maligned, is facing an even more uncertain future.


Title IX has become synonymous with sports, and it’s certainly the area where its impact has been most acutely felt. In the 1971–72 school year, girls accounted for only seven percent of all high school athletes, compared to 42 percent today. When Title IX was enacted, there were only 30,000 girls playing sports in college; today, that number is over 214,000. Overall, 2 in 5 girls are playing sports in school now, compared to just 1 in 27 before Title IX.

However, equality is still a long way off; overall, girls still have 1.2 million fewer opportunities to play sports in high school than boys, and are twice as likely as boys to enter sports later in life, drop out of sports earlier in life, and be inactive overall.

When it comes to the OCR, a whopping 80 percent of the Title IX complaints filed have to do with equality in sports. Based on simple math alone, the proposed budget reduction in the OCR would have the biggest impact on the office’s ability to investigate discrimination in athletics.

Betsy DeVos could be bad news for women’s sports

That is not good news for girls of color in particular, considering that demographic is already underserved by athletics. In schools that are 90 percent or more minority, girls receive just 39 percent of the athletic opportunities that girls in schools that are heavily white receive. And that’s not good news for the success of women everywhere; while many might dismiss sports as just a game, at the grassroots level, participation in sports has a direct correlation to physical health and success later in life.

“In a survey of 400 women executives, 52% of C-suite women played sport at the university level, compared to 39% of women at other management levels,” Laura Gentile, Senior Vice President of espnW, wrote in Fortune. “Girls who play sports have greater social and economic mobility, grow up healthy and confident, and perform better in school. In fact, 74% of executive women agreed that a background in sports can help accelerate a woman’s leadership and career potential.”

“Rescinding the guidance, and then the lack of clarity in the current position, leaves trans students vulnerable to discrimination at schools.”

Hogshead-Makar believes that DeVos and her cohorts are planning to systematically cripple the DOE, and Title IX in particular. First, they’re going after the LGBTQ provisions, then they’ll take on the sexual assault guidances. Then athletics will be attacked.

Her concern is that people will be so fatigued by the constant deluge of controversy coming from the Trump administration that they won’t have the energy or wherewithal to fight it.

“I’m an advocate and this is the world I operate in, is making sure that girls and women have opportunities in sports, and even I’m exhausted,” she said. “We can only go back to our base so many times.”

Chaudhry, too, is discouraged by what she’s seen. But she wants to make sure that people know that Title IX is still the law of the land, at least for now.

“We encourage people to know that they still have rights under Title IX,” Chaudhry said. “Whether this department decides to enforce it, they can still go to their schools and go to their states and ask to be protected.”

The Trump administration is systematically attacking Title IX was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

The White House’s voter fraud commission is starting to take shape

Trump named three low-profile Democrats, including one who isn’t sure why he was chosen.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach answers questions from reporters. Kobach is vice chairman of President Donald Trump’s commission on election fraud and has advised Trump on immigration and voter fraud issues. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Hanna

President Trump made three appointments on Wednesday to the commission that will investigate his unfounded claim that three to five million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election. All three new commissioners are Democrats with low profiles, and one told ThinkProgress he is not concerned that the group is being led by staunch Republicans who champion restrictive voting laws.

Mark Rhodes, a county clerk in Wood County, West Virginia, told ThinkProgress he’s not entirely sure why he was named to Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s Election Integrity Commission. He said he thinks West Virginia’s secretary of state recommended him because Pence and Kobach were looking for a Democratic county clerk, and “there’s not a whole lot of those in West Virginia.”

Prominent Democratic elections officials have said they will not participate in the commission, calling it a partisan attempt to back up Trump’s lie. DNC Chair Tom Perez called it a “Trump-sponsored propaganda factory” and voting rights experts like Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law say it’s a distraction from “actual threats to our democracy, such as ongoing voter suppression.”

But Rhodes said that the stated goal — maintaining election integrity — sounds important.

“This is for election integrity and I believe in the integrity of the election and I think that every county clerk in West Virginia does,” he said. “I guess I’d like to be on this team to review it and if there’s anything that I can do to help show that elections are honest, that’s my goal.”

Rhodes said he is proud that in his four years as clerk, he has never heard any claims of voter fraud, so he understands why the Trump administration would look to his county for advice.

“We try to keep our voter registration files current by checking death certificates, obituaries, everything of that nature,” he said. “We do what we can do to make sure the election is as up-and-up as possible.”

Ideally, Rhodes said he will be able to help the commission apply West Virginia’s election practices more widely across the country. He doesn’t think the focus will be on Trump’s facetious claim of voter fraud because he doesn’t think the evidence exists. But he said he’s willing to investigate to see if it does.

Meanwhile, Rhodes said he believes that Democrats aren’t always innocent and that his party also cries voter fraud after it loses elections.

Citing Trump’s voter fraud lie, states are working to make it harder to vote

According to the executive order Trump signed in May establishing the commission, the group will be tasked with studying “vulnerabilities” in the voting system and potential impacts on “improper voting, fraudulent voter registrations, and fraudulent voting.”

Studies show that voter fraud is virtually non-existent, and Trump has come up with no evidence to support his claim that illegal voters cost him the popular vote in November. But Rhodes said he is not concerned that the commission will turn into a witch hunt for alleged proof of fraud.

Even if the co-chairs recommend more restrictive voting laws, Rhodes said, it takes legislators and the courts to change and uphold the law.

Rhodes also said he thinks it’s important that the panel have representation from both parties, and that the commission will be open to investigating claims of voter suppression.

But how that will happen, or whether he would proactively ask the commission to investigate suppressive laws, is less clear. “I have to learn a lot more at this point in time before I can answer a lot of questions,” he said.

Though details are still uncertain, Rhodes said he believes the final commission will include six Democrats and six Republicans. So far, five Democrats have been named: Rhodes, Deputy Secretary of State Luis Borunda of Maryland, former Arkansas state representative David Dunn, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, and New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner.

Though Gardner is a Democrat, he told ThinkProgress in February that he is open to investigators to look into claims from the Trump administration that thousands of out-of-state citizens cast ballots in New Hampshire, potentially handing the state to Hillary Clinton.

In addition to Kobach and Pence, Republican Secretary of State Connie Lawson of Indiana has also been appointed.

Trump’s lie about illegal votes will have dangerous consequences

Of the commissioners named so far, Rhodes has the lowest profile. But he said his appointment is necessary because he has experience running elections.

“Most of them have never been actually in the precinct,” he said. “I think I bring a different perspective to this because I’ve worked in the precinct and I’ve run early voting. I’ve done all the legwork to get ready for an election, not just in theory but in reality.”

Rhodes said he has spoken to Kobach about his involvement, and said he expects Pence to be at the first meeting to outline the policies and procedures.

Neither of the two Republican co-chairs has provided information to the press about how the commission will function or whether it will have a budget or staff. Rhodes says he still has not been briefed on how often the group will meet or how it will conduct its investigation. According to Rhodes, Kobach hopes the commission will be able to produce a report within a year.

The White House’s voter fraud commission is starting to take shape was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.