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The Good, the Not Bad, and the Ugly of Title IX

Note: Jonathan Plucker, the Raymond Neag Professor of Education at the University of Connecticut, is guest posting this week. He can be found on Twitter at @JonathanPlucker.

(You've been warned: This one starts all unicorns, rainbows, and puppy dogs but ends in a dark place.)

My paternal grandmother was a heck of an athlete. Probably even more so than several of her brothers, some of whom were amazing athletes. Well into her 60s, she had a mean jump shot, and if we were putting together a league of 80-year-old, basketball-playing grandmothers, she would unquestionably be a first-round draft pick.

But she never had the chance to play high school sports. As she often—and bitterly—noted throughout my childhood, a woman born in 1929 simply "couldn't play." The fact that this was still largely true for many women into the 1970s is hard to comprehend, but the data don't lie: School sports were largely a male enterprise in this country until the mid-1970s.

The passage of Title IX in June 1972 began to change that situation, and a case can be made that parts of Title IX are among the most successful pieces of educational policy in American history.

For example: American women own team sports. Although American women dominate many individual sports, team success is probably a better indicator of a country's attitudes toward and support of female athletes (and women in general). At the last summer Olympics, the results were stunning: The undefeated basketball team won by an average of over 34 points. Until losing in the final to Brazil, the volleyball team dropped two sets in its previous seven matches. Our two beach volleyball teams were 12-0 before facing each other in the final match. There's reason to believe that softball was dropped from the Olympics because of American domination. The national soccer team has never been ranked lower than second by FIFA.

I believe that these amazing results are the long-term effects of the increased female participation in high school athletics that occurred in response to Title IX. We can probably come up with lots of other potential causes for the sharp increase, but Title IX is unquestionably part of it. My colleague Steve Batt has constructed a nifty infographic to help illustrate this point, which you can examine and play with below. These data are drawn from publicly available data sets from the National Federation of State High School Associations and Digest of Education Statistics.

The big take-away for me is that my daughter has opportunities that my mother and grandmothers couldn't have imagined. That's a HUGE cultural change and American success story, and it was the result of a piece of federal education policy. And it can be argued that male students lost few, if any, athletic opportunities as a result, despite the fears of the NCAA and other critics. Are we providing young women with the same athletic opportunities as young men? The data suggest we aren't there yet, but the progress is undeniable.

However—and this is a point largely lost to history—Title IX was not originally considered an athletics law. It was intended to equalize educational opportunities, and that also appears to have happened (although, again, there are lots of other factors that probably impacted this change, and we have a ways to go to achieve true and complete equity of opportunity). So the "Good" in Title IX is the tremendous progress in providing women with athletic opportunities. The "Not Bad" describes our progress in providing women with equal educational opportunities.

But the "Ugly" is very ugly indeed, and I see almost no real progress.

Sexual violence continues to plague girls and young women throughout our educational system, from early elementary school through graduate school. This issue has received substantial publicity over the past couple of years, mostly because of horrible (and horribly handled) cases, but, again, I don't see much real progress in prevention.

We did a study of Indiana data a few years back, and we were shocked to learn that nearly 1 in 5 high school women reported being victims of rape before graduating high school. College estimates across the country vary, but they generally provide similar statistics. I personally suspect the numbers are higher due to underreporting, but my evidence is admittedly anecdotal.

But does the ratio matter? Would we sleep easier at night if it were 1-in-6 or 1-in-10? Probably not.

You may be saying to yourself, "This is really bad, but why is it an education policy issue?" Two reasons: First, it has been well-established that sexual violence prevention and adjudication is a Title IX responsibility at the college level. Second, over 40% of rapes occur before the victim is 18, and although I don't have the figures handy, it feels safe to assume that adding sexual violence on college campuses would push the percentage over 50% by the end of college. Given that the overwhelming majority of victims know their attackers, the victims and attackers are often peers and classmates.

So preventing and handling sexual violence is an educational issue, but I'm not sure we (and Title IX) are getting the mechanisms and remedies 100% right. The K-12 focus of Title IX has been largely sports-related, and there just isn't much sexual violence prevention out there. I completely understand the logic here: If I were a superintendent, I'd want the law enforcement system to handle these crimes, and I'd worry that, if I had a large-scale prevention program in place, I'd be acknowledging that these sordid acts are occurring. But they are occurring, a lot, and the overloaded law enforcement system isn't about to implement large-scale, K-12 prevention programs.

Like it or not, our middle and high schools need to step up to the plate, acknowledge the scope of the problem, and improve prevention efforts. As one college Title IX officer once observed, "People don't become serial rapists the first day they get to college. It starts way before then." She's almost certainly correct, and that's why the Title IX focus in K-12 education has to broaden from "mostly about sports" to "sports and violence prevention." Check out this short BBC story on why prevention matters.

At the college level, I'm not sure what we need to change, but we clearly need a different approach: The stories that currently flood the media are heart-wrenching, and my personal experiences lead me to believe they are only the tip of the iceberg. For heaven's sake, one of our most esteemed universities (and one of my alma maters) appears to have a long-term problem with gang rapes. How the $%^# did we let this happen?

Here's an admittedly simplistic proposal that may help: Rethink the mechanisms for Title IX that deal with sexual violence in college. Require universities to have comprehensive prevention programs in place, and require them to document the effectiveness of those programs (so we're talking about more than a one-hour lecture during orientation). In other words, let universities educate. But stop requiring them to adjudicate these cases. We'd never expect a university to "handle" a murder case, and the preponderance of evidence suggests that universities aren't doing a good job "handling" sexual and intimate partner violence. Universities don't have the resources to create a shadow justice system for extremely serious, violent crimes, yet we currently require them to do so. Is it any wonder that victims continue to come forward with stories of how they were counseled by university staff not to file complaints?

Of course, the criminal justice system is hardly doing a great job with sexual violence crimes, but it can't do much worse than many universities. Let's let the criminal justice system handle the crimes, freeing up our K-20 institutions to focus tightly on working with victims, prevention, and changing the culture that considers sexual violence to be inevitable. Not doing so will allow the current situation to continue, one in which families send their daughters to college and pray they don't get the call in the middle of the night. That's the stuff of nightmares, and that's our current reality.

I warned you this was going to end in a dark place.

--Jonathan Plucker

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