WASHINGTON, D.C. — Title IX recently grew a few more teeth. The Supreme Court strengthened enforcement of Title IX by ruling that teachers and coaches may sue schools for giving girls second-rate treatment without fear of punishment.
The judges' 5-4 ruling revived the lawsuit brought by Roderick Jackson, a teacher and girls' basketball coach at Ensley High School in Birmingham, AL, who was fired four years ago from his coaching position after objecting to unequal treatment for his athletes including practicing in an old, non-regulation gym and having no access to funds earned at the team's games to pay for officials, equipment and other supplies.
When Jackson first sued to challenge his firing, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed his complaint citing that Title IX protected discrimination victims, but not others who, at most, witnessed discrimination. After the high court ruling, the case will now return to federal district court in Birmingham.
“This decision is a slam-dunk victory for everyone who cares about equal opportunity,” Marcia D. Greenberger, National Women's Law Center (NWLC) co-president, said in a release. “The court has confirmed that people cannot be punished for standing up for their rights. This protection is not just critical for Title IX but also for other bedrock civil rights laws.”
The NWLC, along with former Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, represented Jackson before the Supreme Court. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said teachers and coaches are often in the best position to vindicate the rights of their students because they are better able to identify discrimination and bring it to the attention of administrators.
“The court's ruling is a win-win for schools and students,” Jackson said. “Knowing that we are protected against retaliation, people like my students and me will be more likely to come forward if we see discrimination. That will give schools notice of problems and a chance for students and administrators to work together to fix them. That's what I really wanted when I started this process.”
The case has opened the door to more litigation for schools, said Anne L. Bryant, National School Boards Association's (NSBA) executive director.
“NSBA fully supports the principle of Title IX to create gender equity in schools,” Bryant said. “But the Supreme Court has created a new pathway to the courthouse, despite the fact that Congress had already provided for Title IX enforcement without lawsuits. Correcting problems and resolving disputes without lawsuits better serves individuals complaining of sex discrimination under Title IX and at a lower cost to taxpayers.”
The Supreme Court's decision was close. The dissenters — William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas — said the court should not go further to allow more lawsuits under Title IX.
“Jackson does not claim that his own sex played any role, let alone a decisive or predominant one, in the decision to relieve him of his position,” Thomas wrote.