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"Back to School on Equal Terms"

Back to School on Equal TermsSummer vacations are a distant memory, and students all over the country have packed their book bags and head back to school. Many young people―and their parents―don’t realize that a federal law, Title IX, protects the right of all students to receive equal opportunities at school, both inside and outside the classroom. Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination under any educational program or activity that receives federal financial support. Title IX doesn’t just require equal opportunities for male and female athletes. It applies to all aspects of education, from math class to band practice.

The primary purpose of Title IX is to give all women and girls equal educational opportunities and benefits―and in particular, to open doors to colleges and graduate schools. Before Title IX, many graduate schools had quotas on the number of women they would admit, and some schools set higher standards of admission for women than for men. Under Title IX, such practices are illegal.

There are two types of discrimination under Title IX. Disparate-treatment discrimination occurs whenever students are treated differently because of their gender. This might occur, for example, if girls are assigned to home economics classes and boys are assigned to shop class, or if a teacher gives males pamphlets about careers in construction but does not give the same information to females. There might be disparate-treatment discrimination in athletics if a high school athletics program schedules girls in a nontraditional or less popular season, while the boys play in a traditional season.

Disparate impact is a more subtle form of discrimination that occurs where actions that appear to be gender neutral actually affect one sex more than the other. For example, there may be disparate-impact discrimination if a school has a rule that “students with long hair cannot conduct chemistry experiments.” Such a rule appears to be gender neutral because it applies to all students, but in fact it applies to more female students than male, because more females have long hair. The school might be able to justify the policy if it can show a “substantial legitimate justification” for the rule. For example, it might argue that such a policy is necessary for safety reasons. Female students might argue in turn that safety could be protected to the same extent if students with long hair were required to keep it tied back during experiments. Similarly, a rule that students can only play tuba in the school marching band “if a student can carry a tuba for one hour” might be discriminatory. The rule appears to be gender neutral because it ostensibly applies to all students, but in fact it is likely to apply to more female students than male students because female students are less likely to have the physical strength and stamina required to carry the instrument for so long.

If you think a school is discriminating between students on the basis of sex, talk to your lawyer about the steps you can take to make a complaint and seek redress.

(Fall 2006)