US capitol

Legislation to strengthen civil rights protections against harassment in schools, including improved Title IX policies, has now been introduced in both houses of Congress.

The Students’ Access to Freedom & Educational Rights Act (SAFER) Act would amend the standards for harassment lawsuits brought under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) and create additional protections for students who experience sex-based harassment.

The SAFER Act would also require more transparency around Title IX religious exemptions, include a broader and more apt definition of sexual harassment and “sex,” allow the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to levy fines against institutions for civil rights violations, require climate surveys in K-12 schools of students experiences with sex-based harassment, and create more requirements for Title IX coordinators and for trainings, with grant funding included. 

“So many students who endure sexual harassment or assault experience isolation, fear, and difficulty focusing on their education as they process a traumatic ordeal. To add insult to injury, students who report their experiences face an uphill battle to seek justice,” said Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey. “We cannot go backwards. School should be a safe place, from early education all the way to institutions of higher learning. The SAFER Act would protect the civil rights of students across the country and help them feel safe and supported as they pursue their education.”

Decades ago, Congress established strong protections against discrimination, including Title IX, as well as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on disability; and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, which prohibits age discrimination.

Supreme Court rulings in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District and Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education have created standards for Title IX sexual harassment lawsuits that increased the burden on the plaintiff.

These standards have made it more difficult for students to be protected from sex-based harassment and have influenced other civil rights laws, making civil rights enforcement against discrimination on the basis of race, disability, and age more difficult as well. 

The SAFER Act is supported by more than 70 organizations, including the National Women’s Law Center, Know Your IX, It’s On Us, Human Rights Campaign, and the National Disability Rights Network.

Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center said, “Fifty years have passed since Title IX was enacted and five years have passed since survivors around the world said, ‘Me too,’ but there is still much to be done to fulfill the law’s promise and the calls for action. Courts continue to make it difficult for survivors to achieve justice, especially when their schools fail to treat harassment seriously. The SAFER Act seeks to end this cycle, and bring us closer to securing equal educational opportunities for all by ensuring schools take steps to protect students who have experienced harassment. We are thrilled to support this critical legislation that recognizes all students deserve to learn and thrive, free from discriminatory harassment.”

“At Know Your IX, we continue to see discrimination, delays in schools' responses to harassment, retaliation, and harmful stereotypes interfere with student survivors' access to their civil rights and a safe educational environment. The status quo is not working for students -- especially for BIPOC survivors, LGBTQI+ survivors, and survivors with disabilities,” said Emma Grasso Levine, Title IX Policy and Program Manager at Advocates for Youth. “The passage of the SAFER Act would provide crucial protections for survivors and strengthen young people's right to an education free from discrimination and violence.”

Read more about the SAFER Act here.

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