Education Department Reminds Schools They Can't Ignore LGBT Harassment

04/24/2015 05:35 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2015

The U.S. Department of Education released guidance on Friday to remind schools that they must respond to reports of harassment based on gender identity or sexual orientation, and that each school is expected to have a Title IX coordinator handling such cases.

The Education Department's Dear Colleague letter and resource guide is the latest step in the Obama administration's ramping up of enforcement under Title IX, which bars discrimination on the basis of sex in K-12 schools and colleges. The department clarified in a major 2011 release that colleges must address allegations of sexual assault on campus, and last year it said that Title IX protects gay and transgender students from discrimination as well.

The department's letter on Friday points out not only that schools must have a Title IX coordinator, but that those employees are protected from retaliation by administrators for performing their job duties.

"This announcement and supporting documents is a big deal because Title IX complaints are up, and so is the stress on Title IX coordinators," said Lisa Maatz, the top federal relations staffer at the American Association of University Women. "They need this assurance that in the eyes of [the Education Department's for Office Civil Rights], their concerns are about sex equality in schools and they have the authority to do their job without fear of retaliation."

As for LGBT students, the department wrote that schools "should investigate and resolve allegations of sexual or gender-based harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students using the same procedures and standards that it uses in all complaints involving sex-based harassment."

"The fact that an incident of sex-based harassment may be accompanied by anti-gay comments or be partly based on a student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation does not relieve a [school] of its obligation under Title IX to investigate and remedy such an incident," the department continued.

Maatz said the guidance was aimed at cases like that in Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, where it was alleged in 2011 that students had been harassed by peers because they "didn't dress or act in ways that conform to gender stereotypes," but the district's Title IX coordinator did not handle issues that arose outside of athletics.

"Unfortunately, this lack of knowledge about Title IX among those tasked with enforcing it is not uncommon," Maatz sad. "That is why these tools released today are important."

Nathan Smith, director of public policy at the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, praised the feds for their "continued reiteration" of LGBT protections.

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, said he wasn't surprised by Friday's letter, given past guidance from the Education Department. "The challenge becomes how is the campus going to better assess the climate for its LGBTQ students and not waiting for a student to be harassed," he said.

Windmeyer said the guidance should be seen as a "mandate" for administrators to become better educated. "There are many high-level administrators today that don't understand the trans community and their needs for inclusive housing," he said. "They don't understand the needs for gay and lesbian students."

Student activists have filed a record number of complaints in recent years alleging that colleges mishandled sexual assault cases in violation of Title IX, prompting more than 100 federal investigations. The Education Department is also conducting two dozen Title IX reviews of K-12 school districts.

Any school, college or university receiving federal funds is subject to Title IX regulation.

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