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The Title IX Self-Audit: An Athletic Director’s Best Practice

By Peg Pennepacker, CAA on April 28, 2021 hst Print

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was the first comprehensive federal law to prohibit sex discrimination against students and employees in educational institutions that receive any stream of federal funding. Title IX benefits both males and females and is at the heart of efforts to create gender-equitable schools.

The law requires educational institutions to maintain policies, practices and programs that do not discriminate against anyone based on sex. It is important for school leaders and decision-makers to understand and embrace the law and not to fear or ignore the law. Title IX and the application to school athletics programs has been in place for nearly 50 years. The school’s athletics program is considered to be an integral part of the educational process for students. Equal access and treatment for those students who decide to participate in athletics is an important tenet of the mission of education-based athletics programs.

Title IX continues to receive a lot of attention. On May 6, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education issued its new Title IX regulations concerning sexual harassment and sexual assault in K-12 schools, including several significant changes in the requirements for dealing with complaints. The new regulations make no changes to the manner in which schools comply with Title IX in athletics. However, this recent focus on K-12 schools raises awareness in all areas of Title IX. It is a school’s best practice to review all policies, practices and procedures including auditing the school’s athletics program for Title IX compliance.

Title IX compliance is enforced at the federal level by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) through investigation of complaints. The OCR’s investigation process is time consuming and all-encompassing. The self-audit will help identify and review issues within a school’s athletics program that need to be addressed in order to meet the requirements of Title IX.

A self-audit will, at a minimum, answer the institutional question, “How are we doing under Title IX and our own goal of gender equity in the athletics program?” At its best, a self-audit helps schools resolve complaints, meet the requirements of the law and initiate improvements that must be made to achieve and maintain compliance.

The athletic director and school district’s Title IX coordinator must work together on a regular basis and collaborate to ensure that the expectations for the self-audit process are clearly defined. They must make completing, reviewing and updating the self-audit a matter of regular routine.

School districts in states that have reporting laws for athletics are already collecting data and information relative to Title IX athletics compliance. A Gender Equity Committee is an important part of the compliance picture and self-audit process. School districts will find that compliance with Title IX requires long-range focus and is best accomplished with the participation of a group of stakeholders who understand the big picture and can make the case for all the necessary choices, decisions and plans over many years.

It is important to select an in-depth resource to guide and document the self-audit process. The National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA, www.niaaa.org) Leadership Training Course 506 and manual is a detailed and comprehensive resource. Athletic directors and Title IX coordinators should be strongly encouraged to take the NIAAA’s course in order to gain an understanding of the technical and legal requirements of Title IX as well as the ideological principles of the law and the application to the school’s athletics program. The course manual includes a detailed and comprehensive guide for schools to follow in order to conduct a self-audit. In addition, “Title IX and Interscholastic Athletics How It Works – In Plain English” by Valarie Bonnette, co-author of the 1990 OCR’s Investigator’s Manual, is a comprehensive self-evaluation manual available at www.titleixspecialists.com.

An active Gender Equity Committee can provide energy and focus to develop and implement a Title IX Action Plan. Individuals with decision-making authority or the ability to influence decision- makers should be included on the committee whenever possible. Representatives should include all stakeholders in the school district, including student-athletes.

The Gender Equity Committee can participate in evaluating the existing program, invite OCR representatives or other Title IX consultants to visit the school district, and assist with evaluation and development of strategies and identify community resources that may be of assistance. Committee members can attend workshops and take courses to develop a better understanding of the law and its implementation and establish training sessions to educate and sensitize staff.

A true Title IX self-audit is a dynamic not a static process. It should be ongoing throughout the school year and continuous from year-to-year. The focus of the self-audit for high school and middle school athletics programs encompasses two areas of the Title IX athletics compliance framework: 1) Accommodations of Interests and Abilities (participation opportunities), and 2) Other Athletic Benefits and Opportunities (treatment). The ultimate goal should be initiating and implementing an action plan – short term and long term. This document can become the district’s blueprint for decision-making.

The self-audit process will demonstrate the school district’s compliance through data or evidence related to participation numbers, practice and game schedules, uniform rotation, coaching, equipment purchasing, etc. The athletic director must incorporate this data collection as a routine process of the work of the athletics department. Updated and monitored consistently, the data collection and program evidence become a touchstone to evaluate progress and compliance.

There should be a permanent Title IX file that is kept in the office of the school’s Title IX coordinator. The permanent Title IX file consisting of all documented materials applicable to the self-audit, which should be arranged in a systematic and logical manner, will be readily available to assess progress in regard to Title IX compliance.

Everyone involved in the athletics program needs to understand and become knowledgeable about Title IX as it applies to athletics and the meaning of the self-audit data. Educating all stakeholders elevates the buy-in potential to enable schools to celebrate and maintain the quality of the program. Having everyone on the same page facilitates making appropriate decisions in order to move toward compliance.

The athletic director and Title IX coordinator must provide training opportunities for all involved in the school’s athletics program including Gender Equity Committee members, coaches, student-athletes, parents and staff. The school district should post Title IX self-audit findings and information on the school district’s website and district newsletters and other school district communications.

Since the self-audit process is fluid, findings will change from year-to-year. Transparency will be important to the process in order to establish trust and understanding with all members of the school-community and to allow for progress and improvement throughout the school’s athletic program.

While it may seem like a large project initially, performing a self-audit of the athletics program and reviewing and updating it regularly can make the athletic director’s life easier in the long run. With clarity about the district’s compliance status and a plan for moving forward, athletic directors will have firm ground to stand on when making day-to-day decisions. The collected data will go a long way to helping address concerns before they become officially filed complaints. If there should be an OCR investigation triggered in the district, being prepared with the necessary data and plans may create a more constructive working relationship with the Office for Civil Rights. Title IX athletics compliance is in large part about doing the right thing for all students who participate in a school’s athletics program.

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