In September 2018, I, like many women, was glued to my television watching Christine Blasey Ford testify about the indelible mark left by the sexual assault she had experienced as a high school student. For days, I kept thinking about her story and about all the stories that women like her had experienced and never spoken about, including me. One morning I was compelled to write them down, and only then did I realize how many instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment I had experienced in my life but never thought to talk about. There were eight that I remembered. Until then, I had dismissed or excused each and every one of them as something that I deserved because of choices that I had made or situations in which I had placed myself. After hearing Dr. Ford’s testimony, I wondered what would have happened if I had reported any of them. Had I done so, would that have stemmed the tide of later incidents, or empowered me to recognize my legal rights? Or would I have been ignored, or told that I carried some of the blame in what I had experienced?
As an education attorney in New York City, I represent students in suspension or discipline hearings. I once had a seven-year old client; when she was in elementary school, a boy in her class would come up behind her, every day, and whisper in her ear that she was a slut or a ho. One day, fed up with his behavior, she grabbed a pair of scissors when he approached her and told him that if he ever came near her, she would cut him. School officials suspended her for endangering the health, safety, and well-being of another student. Another client, a fifteen-year old girl, responded to a request from a boy who she thought was her boyfriend to send him pictures of her breasts. She did, and he, along with another girl from her school, printed out the pictures and posted them all over school. The taunts and teasing soon followed. The school suspended her for distributing obscene material. Still another client endured physical and verbal taunts from numerous boys in her schools and, even though she diligently reported all of them, school officials failed to curb the conduct of the perpetrators. When she reached her breaking point and threw a plastic figurine at one of the boy’s heads after school one day, she was suspended.
In each of these cases, I represented these girls zealously to reduce or dismiss disciplinary charges. For all of them, I worked to get them whatever educational supports I could, including school transfers, tutoring, safety plans, or other reasonable accommodations. Yet, it never occurred to me that each of them had also had their rights violated under Title IX. Call it a curse of direct legal services: very often, our legal resources and advocacy efforts are focused on one area of law or policy, and we represent our clients and their individual needs in specific cases in that area. Yet, the sheer volume of our practice means we often lack the time or resources to think beyond those individual client needs and engage in broader, more systemic advocacy that could benefit a larger population.
I share these cases as examples of what happens when parents, teachers, school officials, students, and advocates, are not educated about Title IX and about a student’s right to be protected from sexual harassment and assault. Title IX is the law that prohibits discrimination based on sex, including sexual harassment and assault, in any educational program receiving federal funding. Schools, and school districts, are required under Title IX to protect students from gender-based violence or harassment because it can limit or prevent a student from participating and benefiting from a school’s educational program. This obligation includes a responsibility to investigate complaints of gender-based violence or harassment and provide interim measures for the complainant to ensure they can access their education.
Title IX received new attention when, in November 2018, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed new guidelines for the law. Following an extensive notice and comment period, these new regulations were issued in May 2020 and are expected to take effect August 2020 before the start of the new school year. Much of the conversation and media attention surrounding Title IX generally, as well as these changes, has focused on the impact on students in higher education. To date, the failure of K-12 schools, and school districts, to comply with Title IX, and the impact on students has received far less attention.
Though far less publicized in the news media, the reality is that gender-based violence and harassment for young students in K-12 has been rampant for years. In 2011, a study of middle and high school students, conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), found that almost half of the nearly 2000 students surveyed had experienced some form of sexual harassment as part of their daily life at school. An Associated Press study reported that during 2013-2014 there were more than 2,800 reported cases of sexual assault involving more than 3,300 elementary and secondary school students. More recent data from New York City, where I practice law, suggest that these numbers are not unusual as sexual assault and harassment continue with alarming frequency to impact school-aged children. Specifically, a review of the data collected during the 2016-2017 school year found that there were 2,600 reported incidents of sexual assault and/or harassment in New York City public schools. This amounts to 14.4 sexual harassment incidents every day. And that’s just in one school district in one city.
What’s more frightening is that all of these statistics likely grossly under-estimate the number of actual incidents of gender-based violence as many victims do not feel comfortable reporting these events. Many students have experienced varying forms of sexual harassment, ranging from jokes, comments, graffiti, sexually degrading skits, bra snapping, pulling pants down, and skirt flipping, to attempted sexual assault and rape. These behaviors are often conducted in public, sometimes in front of adults and school personnel who do not intervene. According to Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women specializing in gender-based violence in K-12 schools, this reaction from the adults “give[s] the students—be they the witnesses, targets, or the perpetrators—the sense that sexual harassment conduct is considered normal and appropriate.”
While universities have taken steps to strengthen protocols related to Title IX, according to a recent study, an estimated eighty-five percent of K-12 school districts nationwide are not in compliance with their Title IX obligations. This fact could be attributed to officials in some schools districts who aren’t fully aware of their legal obligation to address harassment and assault under Title IX. For others, the failure to comply with their Title IX obligations may be the result of insufficient, inadequate, or nonexistent training. These two factors taken together – both the failure to understand legal obligations and the lack of adequate training in Title IX compliance – explains why many counselors and teachers in schools reported that they do not feel prepared or qualified to address issues of gender-based violence in their schools. The result is the perpetuation of a hostile environment that renders student victims of harassment or assault powerless as they are denied the opportunity to learn in their own schools.
In the last few years, there has been a groundswell of cases that address this failure of school districts to recognize and respond to gender-based violence; I want to briefly mention three cases with promising outcomes. In a 2019 case, Doe v. School Board of Miami-Dade County, a fourteen-year old girl in Florida was repeatedly sexually assaulted and harassed by a group of male students in her high school. She did not initially report the first, or the second, sexual assault because she was embarrassed, confused, and afraid that school officials would not believe her. It was only after the third sexual assault, and with the help of her friends, that she reported the incidents to a teacher. She was then called to report the incidents to a school official, and subsequently reported them again to a school counselor and to another teacher. Following each account, the school officials failed to properly investigate the assaults, failed to provide her with any information about her rights under Title IX, and failed to provide academic accommodations and support services to ensure her equal access to educational opportunities. Instead, school officials coerced the student into recanting her written statement and suspended her for sexual misconduct. After being suspended, the student sued the school board under Title IX and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The court denied the school district’s motion to dismiss, finding that the student had pled a valid Title IX claim alleging that school board’s response to her allegations was deliberately indifferent and effectively barred her from educational opportunity. The school district subsequently settled the case, agreeing to Title IX training for employees and training on harassment and bullying for students.
In another lawsuit that resulted in changes to a school district practices, a seventeen-year old student in California reported that she had been gang raped by several classmates at an off-campus party. When she reported the rape and ensuing harassment she experienced at school to the school resource officer, he responded by escorting her off campus, suspending her, and telling her to stay home the rest of the school year. The school failed to conduct any investigation of the incidents, failed to advise the student of her rights under Title IX, and failed to provide her with any appropriate safety and educational measures. She sued the school district, alleging violations of Title IX, and as part of the settlement, the school district agreed to make significant policy changes to how it investigates and responds to harassment.
In a recent case in Pennsylvania, a fifteen-year old student was raped by a classmate during a school break. When school resumed, the assailant spread sexual rumors about her, subjected her to sexual slurs, and threatened her with physical assault. When she reported the rape and the ensuing harassment, officials at the Pennridge School District failed to investigate and failed to provide the victim with appropriate safety measures or any educational support. The court denied the school district’s motion to dismiss, finding that the complaint adequately alleged that school officials had substantial control over the harassing students, the ability to remedy the hostile environment, and that they had shown deliberate indifference to the victim and failed to provide her with any educational resources. The case remains in litigation, but the language the court used in denying the school’s motion is a positive sign that courts are starting to recognize the seriousness of elementary and secondary school district violations of Title IX.
In addition to these promising court decisions, there are other recent indications that school districts are becoming more responsive to Title IX concerns. In 2015, there were only forty school districts nationwide that were under investigation with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for their handling of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault claims.  Currently, there are 249 pending investigations of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault at elementary and secondary school levels. One of the most recent, and noteworthy, OCR investigations began after two complaints were filed against the Chicago city school district alleging violations of Title IX. The OCR found that 2,800 complaints of peer sexual harassment had occurred between 2012 and 2018, and they ordered Chicago school district to make significant changes to its policies and procedures in order to protect students from sexual assaults. Other school districts have been called-out publicly by community groups for their failure to respond to sexual harassment in schools. In the Oakland school district, for example, boys in elementary schools were regularly calling girls “bitches,” “sluts,” or “hos,” and participating in a weekly ritual called “Slap-Ass Friday” in which they gave themselves permission to spank and touch girls’ behinds. Student leaders, with the help of the local nonprofit Alliance for Girls, pushed to revamp the school district’s sexual harassment and assault policy and put an end to the hostile environment. These are just a handful of examples that show that government officials, local education advocates, and community members will no longer tolerate systemic violations of Title IX in K-12 setting.
Though litigation, community advocacy, and policy changes are critical, it is equally important for school districts themselves to address sexual harassment before it becomes a problem. Time and again female clients have told me that school officials dismissed their claims of harassment with phrases like “he likes you,” “boys are just being boys,” “don’t be so sensitive,” or “it’s only playful teasing.” When school officials respond this way, they convey the message that sexual harassment and assault are acceptable; they minimize the problem, foster ambiguity about what happened to the victims, and shape how administrators and authority figures respond to reported assaults.
One solution to help schools address gender-based violence might be to re-examine how sex education for students can provide appropriate behavioral expectations for both boys and girls, and offer age-appropriate and comprehensive training on the importance of consent, healthy relationships, power dynamics, gender inequality, and bias. A recent study from Columbia suggests that if schools provided more comprehensive sex education, it could change the culture of sexual harassment and assault in the United States by preparing students for healthy relationships, and could help prevent sexual violence. 
Another solution might be to encourage the use of Know Your Rights trainings and toolkits in schools. In 2018, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) launched an initiative called “Let Her Learn” to help girls who were being pushed out of school by unfair disciplinary practices, sexual harassment, and lack of trauma-informed approaches in education. As part of their efforts, the NWLC created a toolkit to help students know their rights under Title IX, informed them how to get help when they have experienced harassment or assault, and critically, advised them how they could change a school’s Title IX practices and policies. With the increase in K-12 Title IX litigation, the rise in OCR complaints, and the timing of the #MeToo movement, this toolkit has never been more critical than it is right now, and it should be spread far and wide on every school’s website, walls, and lunchrooms so that conversations can lead to trainings to inform and educate students about their rights under the law. With this toolkit, students like those in Oakland can hold school districts accountable for their failures to protect students from gender-based violence. Students, like the plaintiffs in the lawsuits I previously mentioned, could get information sooner and share it with their friends.
With the new Title IX regulations soon to take effect, we are in a watershed moment to help push primary and secondary educators, and school districts, to be more aware of their obligations under Title IX. With tools like Let Her Learn to provide information to students and parents, and advocacy like OCR complaints and litigation, there is no shortage of resources to help them meet those responsibilities. Advocates – and students themselves – are becoming better equipped to enforce students’ rights if they experience gender-based violence or harassment at school.
For me, Dr. Ford’s testimony was a turning point: not only was I not alone in my experiences but I recognized just how deeply each and every incident of sexual assault or sexual harassment had impacted me. This realization also marked a turning point in my advocacy, as I now strive to think more critically about strategies to help my clients not just with their individual cases but to facilitate systemic policy change in the school district. In some cases, it’s been by including Title IX claims, for others it’s been raising claims under Title VI for discrimination on the basis of national origin. For still others, I’ve raised claims challenging discrimination students have experienced under federal disability laws.
My hope is that the tide of Title IX advocacy, particularly in the K-12 setting, continues to swell so that no one will have to experience what Dr. Ford, or any of these students, including me, did. With time, educational tools, and zealous advocacy on behalf of student victims, I’m optimistic that we can ensure that all students have the opportunity to heal and learn in an environment free from gender-based violence and harassment.
Amy Leipziger is a Senior Staff Attorney at Queens Legal Services in New York City. She maintains an active docket of special education cases, social security cases for children, and is currently co-counsel on two federal lawsuits against the NYC Department of Education alleging constitutional and federal statutory claims, including gender and national origin discrimination.
 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq.
 Title IX relies on the terms “sexual harassment” and “sexual assault,” as do several studies cited below, however where possible I have referred to it as gender based violence in the interests of inclusivity.
 Erica L. Green, ‘It’s Like the Wild West’: Sexual Assault Victims Struggle in K-12 Schools, N.Y. Times (May 11, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/11/us/politics/sexual-assault-school.html; see also Break the Cycle, Title IX and Dating Abuse: Implementation in Secondary Schools 1–3 (Fall 2014), https://www.breakthecycle.org/sites/default/files/Title%20IX%20and%20Dating%20Abuse%20-%20Implementation%20in%20Secondary%20Schools.pdf.
 Catherine Hill & Holly Kearl, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School 2 (2011), https://www.aauw.org/files/2013/02/Crossing-the-Line-Sexual-Harassment-at-School.pdf.
 By the Numbers: Stats Revealed by AP Investigation of Student Sex Assaults, Associated Press:
Schoolhouse Sex Assault (May 1, 2017), https://www.ap.org/explore/schoolhouse-sex-assault/stats-revealed-by-ap-investigation-of-student-sex-assaults.html.
 To access SSEC data cited here, see School Safety and the Educational Climate: Data Reporting, NYSED (Feb. 23, 2018) http://www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/school_safety/school_safety_data_reporting.html; see also Selim Algar, NYC Schools See Surge in Sex Attacks, N.Y. Post (Jan. 30, 2018), https://nypost.com/2018/01/30/city-schools-faced-with-soaring-sexual-offense-complaints (reporting that less serious sex offense that includes milder form of conduct rose from 2311 in 2016 to 2604 in 2017).
 Carolyn Haney, Addressing the High School Sexual Assault Epidemic: Preventive and Responsive Solutions, 8 Ind. J. L. & Soc. Equality 89, 108 (2020).
 Nan Stein, A Rising Pandemic of Sexual Violence in Elementary and Secondary Schools: Locating a Secret Problem, 12 Duke J. Gender L. & Pol’y 33, 44 (2005).
 Id. at 44–45.
 Jane Meredith Adams, Experts Say Schools Must Do More to Address Early Signs of Sexual Harassment,
EdSource (July 24, 2016), https://edsource.org/2016/experts-say-schools-must-do-more-to-address-earlysigns-
 Mark Keierleber, The Younger Victims of Sexual Violence in School, The Atlantic (Aug. 10, 2017), https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/08/the-younger-victims-of-sexual-violence-in-school/536418/.
 Haney, supra note 6, at 98.
 Doe v. Sch. Bd. of Miami-Dade Cty., 403 F. Supp. 3d 1241 (S.D. Fla. 2019).
 Id. at 1247.
 Id. at 1248.
 Id. at 1250.
 Id. at 1269.
 Press Release, National Women’s Law Center, Settlement Approved in Miami-Dade County School Sexual Assault Lawsuit (Nov. 19, 2019), https://nwlc.org/press-releases/settlement-approved-in-miami-dade-county-school-sexual-assault-lawsuit/; see also Carolyn Guniss, Lawsuit alleging sexual assault coverup settled, The Miami Times (Nov. 27, 2019), https://www.miamitimesonline.com/education/lawsuit-alleging-sexual-assault-coverup-settled/article_3f59aca0-1154-11ea-80a6-6713e2e9b743.html.
 Virginia M. v. Sacramento, Case No. 34-2018-00226922 (Superior Court 2018); see also Press Release, Equal Rights Advocates, ERA client wins in settlement with Sacramento School District; Spurs new policies for 49,000 students (Sept. 24, 2019), https://www.equalrights.org/news/era-client-wins-in-settlement-with-sacramento-school-district-spurs-new-policies-for-49000-students/.
 School Resource Officers are defined as “sworn law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools.” Supporting Safe Schools, Community Oriented Policing Services, https://cops.usdoj.gov/supportingsafeschools.
 Virginia M. v. Sacramento, Case No. 34-2018-00226922 (Superior Court 2018).
 Id.; see also Press Release, supra note 22.
 Goodwin v. Pennridge Sch. Dist., 389 F. Supp. 3d 304 (E.D. Pa. 2019).
 Id. at 309.
 Id. at 316.
 Id. at 319. The court also partially denied a summary judgment motion finding she had proved enough evidence that a reasonable jury could find that the school district deprived her of equal access to an education.
 EduRisk by United Educators, Title IX and Sexual Harassment in K-12 Public Schools 2 (2015) https://www.ue.org/uploadedFiles/Title%20IX%20and%20Sexual%20Harassment%20in%20K-12%20Public%20Schools.pdf.
 Pending Cases Currently Under Investigation at Elementary-Secondary and Post-Secondary Schools as of January 31, 2020 7:30am, U.S. Dep’t of Educ., https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/investigations/open-investigations/tix.html (last visited Mar. 25, 2020).
 David Sheridan, Oakland girls shine spotlight on sexual harassment and school board revamps its policy, NEA EdJustice Features (Nov. 9, 2017), https://educationvotes.nea.org/2017/11/09/oakland-girls-shine-spotlight-sexual-harassment-school-board-revamps-policy/.
 Haney, supra note 6, at 96.
 See Lorena Garcia, It’s 2018. It’s Time to Update Sex Ed., Educ. Week (May 8, 2018), https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/05/09/its-2018-its-time-to-update-sex.html and Katelyn Silva, Sex Ed Isn’t Enough, Our Schools Should Be Teaching Sexual Consent, Educ. Post (Sept. 12, 2016), https://educationpost.org/sex-ed-isnt-enough-our-schools-should-be-teaching-sexual-consent/. See also Samantha Schmidt, Middle schools enter a new era in sex ed — teaching 13-year-olds about consent, Wash. Post. (Jan. 14, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/middle-schools-enter-a-new-era-in-sex-ed–teaching-13-year-olds-about-consent/2020/01/14/27c17c80-35ad-11ea-bf30-ad313e4ec754_story.html (“[o]nly about 11 states . . . included references to consent, healthy relationships or sexual assault in their sex education standards”).
 John S. Santelli et al., Does sex education before college protect students from sexual assault in college?, PLOS ONE (Nov. 14, 2018), https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0205951; see also Laura Fay, Rethinking Sex Ed for the #MeToo Moment: A ‘Hugely Significant’ Study Shows That Strengthening Education on Relationships & Consent Can Change the Culture, The 74 Million (Apr. 1, 2019), https://www.the74million.org/article/rethinking-sex-ed-for-the-metoo-moment-a-hugely-significant-study-shows-that-strengthening-education-on-relationships-consent-can-change-the-culture/.
 Let Her Learn, Nat’l Women’s L. Ctr., https://nwlc.org/let-her-learn/ (last visited May 18, 2020).