Her mentoring professor hosted an annual Christmas party for his lab with a “white elephant” gift exchange — to which he brought sex toys as his gifts.
“We were out at a restaurant in public,” Smith said. “It was super weird. You’re ostracized if you’re not into it. Everyone just laughed along with it.”
At another Christmas party, he ridiculed a female student’s intelligence with offensive language and then mocked her failure to be accepted into a physician’s assistant program because, Smith recalled him saying, “Everyone with a vagina gets into PA school.”
It would take nearly four years, two attorneys and countless hours of filling out forms and sitting in meetings for Smith’s complaints about gender discrimination and sexual harassment to be heard and substantiated by officials on the Fort Collins campus.
“Dealing with Title IX was so horrible,” she said.
Smith’s story illustrates how Title IX’s impact has evolved since President Richard Nixon signed the landmark gender-equity law on June 23, 1972. As Title IX’s 50th anniversary approaches, The Denver Post is looking at how the law forces educational institutions to respond when women report sexual discrimination, harassment or assault — and how schools continue to fall short when it comes to protecting female students.
Since Title IX demanded equality in education, women have kicked open doors to medical and law schools and engineering programs, and sprinted onto playing fields across the country. But the law wasn’t an immediate success, and its evolution has experienced ups and downs over the years as different political parties assume power and as women become more determined to expand Title IX’s reach through legal avenues.
The law’s scope expanded in the early 2000s as more women began using it to force universities to accept responsibility for the sexual misconduct of faculty, staff and students. That movement included a groundbreaking case involving a University of Colorado Boulder student who prevailed in a lawsuit she brought against the school over its football team’s record of sexual assaults.
Yet that expansion has been followed by recent rollbacks.
In 2017, the Trump administration unraveled some of Title IX’s protections by redefining sexual harassment in its regulations and by changing the rules for how cases are adjudicated on campuses. And this spring, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that stripped women of their ability to sue for emotional damages under Title IX, leaving lawyers wondering how they can hold schools responsible without the threat of paying out large settlements.
“It feels like the progression of Title IX is that it didn’t exist and women could be excluded. Then women were allowed to participate,” said John Clune, a lawyer who specializes in Title IX and sports law at Hutchinson, Black and Cook in Boulder. “But now after 50 years of allowing people to participate, they’re still fighting off harassment and sexism just to complete their degrees. Maybe the next 50 years will bring the equitable treatment of women. It’s not just schools. It’s society. Maybe society will get better.”
Sports came first
The actual law never mentions sports, but right off the bat, a push for gender parity in athletics became the focus and the most high profile change under Title IX.
For years, Title IX was ignored outside of that athletic context, said Igor Raykin, an Aurora attorney who specializes in Title IX discrimination.
Then in 1979, Geraldine Cannon sued the University of Chicago after being denied entry to its medical school. Her case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that she and other women could sue under Title IX.
Thirteen years later, a Georgia high school student named Christine Franklin sued Gwinnett County Public Schools and became the first student to win financial damages in a Title IX lawsuit.
Lawyers, after all, are business people, Raykin said, and after the Franklin case they saw an opportunity to make money by pursuing Title IX cases against schools. But the ability to win a financial payout also encouraged more women to seek damages.
“If you just tell a plaintiff, ‘All we can do is file a complaint with some kind of government agency,’ they may ask you, ‘Really what’s the point of that?’ You know, there’s not going to be much of a remedy there. Whereas if there could be some kind of a financial remedy, then plaintiffs at that point are more likely to move forward,” Raykin said. “But the development of this case law was still slow.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights divisions investigates Title IX complaints against schools, but those are lengthy, often conducted in secret and carry little punishment, Raykin said.
There are 28 open investigations against Colorado universities and school districts, according to the education department’s website.
Over the years, it’s taken lawsuits to force change.
CU sports as a national case
In Colorado, a groundbreaking case emerged from Boulder after University of Colorado student Lisa Simpson reported to police that she was raped by football recruits after they crashed a party at her apartment in 2001.
Simpson went to bed when the football players arrived with their teenage recruits in tow, but later woke because two of the recruits were taking off her clothes. She filed a police report but the Boulder County district attorney declined to prosecute.
Simpson sued the university, arguing that CU Boulder sanctioned and funded a program to show recruits a good time and lacked proper control, allowing the prospective players to misbehave. As the legal battle played out, Simpson faced harassment from those who did not believe her story and who accused her of trying to destroy a successful football program.
The case made national headlines as the investigation into CU’s football program revealed university officials knew players had been accused of multiple sexual assaults and that the football program paid for the recruits’ entertainment and instructed host players to show them a good time with alcohol and women.
Efforts to reach Simpson to talk about her case were unsuccessful.
But in a 2008 interview with The Denver Post, Simpson said, “You can’t just let these people run around raping. Something needed to be done; something needed to change. I couldn’t live with myself if I wouldn’t have tried to keep it from happening to someone else.”
At first, Simpson’s case was rejected by a U.S. District Court judge, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Simpson and another woman who had joined the case could go to trial to attempt to prove the university was liable under Title IX. After that decision, CU settled with the women.
The university paid Simpson $2.5 million and $350,000 to the second woman, and agreed to expand its victims’ assistance center and employ a Title IX monitor to address the school’s sexual harassment, assault and gender-discrimination problems. The president, chancellor and athletic director resigned in the wake of the scandal.
“The courts in that case recognized the plaintiffs’ arguments that this was a system built around the exploitation of female students and it was built into how the athletic department functioned,” said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.
It was a victory for Simpson and Title IX activists. College athletics departments around the country paid attention.
After that decision, women brought lawsuits against Florida State University and Baylor University over their athletes’ bad behavior. A Michigan State University student first filed a Title IX complaint against physician Larry Nassar in 2014. Nassar is now in prison after being convicted of sexual assault of multiple female athletes, including U.S. gymnastics team members. The university paid a $4.5 million federal fine for its poor handling of the Nassar complaints.
Today, colleges across the country, including CU, have offices and administrators dedicated to Title IX compliance.
Valerie Simons is the chief compliance officer and Title IX coordinator for the CU system and chairwoman of the Sexual Misconduct Advisory Committee at the state Department of Higher Education. Before that, she spent seven years as CU Boulder’s first campus-wide Title IX coordinator.
“We are constantly trying to improve everything that we do, because even though we have created a national model and we have made great strides over the last decade, sexual misconduct remains at CU,” Simons said. “It remains on every college campus across the country and one instance remains one too many.”
A Trump rollback
As chairwoman of the state’s Sexual Misconduct Advisory Committee, Simons is leading Colorado’s response on college campuses to a 2020 rollback of Title IX protections by the Trump administration under the leadership of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Those changes were made to policies at the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division; the changes expanded the rights of those accused of sexual assault by allowing an almost court-like procedure at hearings during which they can cross-examine their accusers. The changes also narrowed the definition of sexual harassment and prevented schools from using the same person to investigate and make decisions about complaints.
The Colorado legislature created the sexual misconduct committee to recommend gender discrimination, harassment and assault policies for state universities. Since its formation in 2019, the committee has recommended, among other things, that off-campus misconduct be included under a university’s oversight.
“So in that situation, if something happened between students in an off-campus apartment, the Colorado recommendation said the university still has to pay attention to it and deal with it,” Simons said.
The committee also has recommended Colorado create a statewide organization that establishes a model for how campuses prevent, resolve and adjudicate complaints so there is consistency between various universities, she said. Most campuses are following the committee’s recommendations, although they are not mandatory, Simons said.
Elementary, middle and high schools also are obligated to investigate Title IX complaints. Lawyers in Colorado have won big settlements and administrators have lost their jobs over failings.
In 2020, Raykin’s law firm won a case after the U.S. 10th Circuit of Appeals allowed a student to sue Denver Public Schools over bullying she suffered at school after she was assaulted off-campus by a classmate. In April, Cherry Creek School District students walked out of class in protest of that district’s handling of sexual assault reports. That same district agreed in 2018 to pay an $11.5 million settlement to five students who sued after they were sexually assaulted by a middle school teacher.
Biden’s education department is expected to release its proposed rule changes later this summer, which Simons and other experts believe will reverse the previous administration’s policies. However, federal rule changes can take years as they undergo public hearings and legal reviews.
A Supreme Court setback
The ability for women to win big financial payouts against schools for Title IX failures suffered a blow in late April when the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority issued a 6-3 opinion that says people can’t receive financial awards for emotional distress in certain lawsuits involving civil rights complaints.
The case, Cummings vs. Premier Rehab Keller, revolved around the federal Rehabilitation Act, which prevents discrimination against people with disabilities.
But the justices wrote a broad interpretation of how federal civil rights complaints should be considered as potential contract violations, and now attorneys who specialize in Title IX lawsuits fear their clients will no longer be able to receive money for the emotional distress, Raykin said. Instead, they would only be able to claim actual damages such as medical bills. The same concerns exist for people who file lawsuits for racial or disability discrimination.
“What is so frustrating is the way the Supreme Court pulled back these rights and they did it in a stealth attack,” Martin, of the women’s law center, said. “It really was under the radar.”
Embarrassment, shame, depression, anxiety and other mental suffering are rampant among women who’ve been targeted by harassment, discrimination and assault, Raykin said. There’s rarely obvious physical damage.
But that mental suffering doesn’t generate big medical bills that a victim can demand a school pay. The jury awards for emotional distress generate the big financial penalties.
“What we think of as the trauma in sexual assault and sexual harassment is mental trauma,” Martin said. “The Cummings decision would say the courts can’t do anything about that.”
Now women will be less likely to file complaints because these cases are grueling and many women just want to move on with their lives, Raykin said.
“The bigger issue here is the deterrent factor,” he said. “Before, schools knew that there was at least some incentive to follow proper Title IX procedures because you could get hit for a pretty substantial award. Now that’s been taken off the table. They’re thinking, ‘If we really screw up Title IX in a truly awful way, but there are only three or four thousand dollars in medical bills, well, who cares?’”
Civil rights attorneys across the nation are in early discussions about how to undo the Supreme Court’s opinion, Martin said. Congress could create a law to allow victims of gender, racial and disability discrimination to collect compensation for emotional damages. Until then, the exact impact of the high court’s opinion will be hammered out in courtrooms.
“There will be lots of fights case by case to figure out what the scope of Cummings is,” she said.
“I became a problem”
Meghan Smith’s case at CSU never reached the point of a lawsuit.
After the university in January substantiated her complaints of gender discrimination and sexual harassment against her professor, she received an undisclosed settlement to cover her attorneys’ fees, she said. There was very little left over for other expenses. In exchange for the money, Smith agreed not to sue CSU.
The Post agreed not to identify Smith’s professor or her department because she is still a student and fears retaliation for speaking out.
Smith was denied an education equal to that of her male classmates because she switched the focus of her doctoral research to get away from the professor, said Clune, her attorney. That’s what Title IX is intended to prevent.
The Title IX complaint process was cumbersome as Smith spent hours filling out online forms. On days when she needed to be researching and writing she was in investigative hearings and mediation meetings.
Smith said her anxiety grew and she needed therapy. No one from CSU’s Title IX office or the university ever asked about her well-being, she said. One university official offered her the option to finish her doctorate remotely, but Smith found that unacceptable since her study requires high-tech lab equipment.
“They didn’t do much to protect me,” Smith said. “Once I reported, I became a problem for CSU.”Jeff Dodge, a CSU spokesman, said university officials were not allowed to comment on an individual student’s case because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
In the spring of 2021, CSU hired Araiña Muñiz as its first dedicated Title IX coordinator. She restructured the campus office by hiring additional investigators and a case manager to intake, screen and coordinate reports. A new assistant director provides administrative support and has expanded education, training and outreach, Dodge said.
In a statement, Muñiz said, “We have a culture of care at CSU. All across the university, people are highly engaged and involved in creating a positive, equitable climate. This community is committed to ending gender-based discrimination and at the end of the day we ask, ‘How can we do the right thing?’”
Smith isn’t sure she will follow her original career plan to work as a research professor on a college campus because of what she went through with her professor in Fort Collins and the whole Title IX process.
“Because of this experience, I’m thinking after I graduate I might just ditch academia and go get a job at a regular company because I don’t want to be in this environment,” she said. “I’m pretty cynical about this world.”
But she’s encouraged by her new mentoring professor, who treats her with respect, and she feels like she is doing rewarding work that will pave the way for a successful career.
“After my first meeting with my new boss, I literally cried,” Smith said. “It highlighted how much better the situation would be and how horrible it had been before.”