She Wanted to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, and Now Title IX Can Protect HerJuly 01, 2015
Many educators and campus professionals don’t know that Title IX protects them from retaliation. This lawsuit could change that.
When Susan Burhans accepted a position at Yale University in 1999, campus sexual assault wasn’t a big part of the national media conversation. Most administrators didn’t acknowledge or understand that Title IX covered sexual violence. Hired to work on communications and campus safety, Burhans had no idea that Title IX would play a significant role in her work. Once she settled in, however, students started bringing her complaints about the school’s handling of sexual assault. As she learned more about the experiences of student survivors, Burhans began to believe that the school’s methods for adjudicating complaints of sexual assault might violate Title IX.
Burhans started planning prevention programming and laying out her Title IX concerns. But, she says, her superiors didn’t listen. When she tried repeatedly to warn the administration that the school might be violating Title IX, she says, she faced escalating retaliation, and her programming efforts were stymied. Exhausted by the pushback and retaliation, she eventually filled a discrimination complaint. Like many administrators and educators, she knew Title IX protected her students from gender discrimination, but she didn’t know Title IX also protected her from the type of retaliation she alleged in her complaint.
Unknowingly, student advocates helped her make the connection. In 2011, after Burhans had already initiated her discrimination claim, Yale students filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, alleging that the school had violated Title IX. Campus activism around sexual assault was gaining more attention, and the students’ complaint made headlines. “I happened to pick up the paper that day, and as I read the article [about the students’ complaint], it was an epiphany for me. The article mentioned all of the programs I had tried to put in place. And that’s when I realized my own case had to do with Title IX.”
But, as she says, “So few people understood what Title IX was at that point.” It took Burhans months of work just to find a Title IX specialist who could guide her. Finally, Burhans tracked down an attorney who told her about Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, an AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund-supported U.S. Supreme Court case. Jackson had established that Title IX protects educators from retaliation when they challenge gender discrimination. Although the U.S. Supreme Court decided Jackson back in 2005, only athletics staff had ever relied on the precedent in their own retaliation suits, perhaps because most people still associate Title IX with athletics alone. Years after filing her initial discrimination complaint, Burhans refiled her case under Title IX, becoming likely the first school employee outside of athletics to rely on Jackson. Today, her case is moving forward toward trial.
It took Burhans years and tireless perseverance to assert her rights under Title IX, and she still has a long way to go. She hopes her case highlights the crucial role administrators must play to end campus sexual assault and realize Title IX’s vision of equity. “I’m just so thankful that AAUW has taken the time to learn about my case,” she says. “Everyone has to realize that if people like me can’t do our jobs, there will be so many more victims in the years to come.”
Read more about the background and context of the Burhans v. Yale case.
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