- Troy University must change its policies to better accommodate pregnant students under a deal it struck with the U.S. Department of Education this month, resolving an agency investigation into whether the Alabama public institution violated federal civil rights law.
- University officials during the 2020-21 academic year failed to assist a pregnant student, even penalizing her for poor classroom attendance, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights found.
- Legal experts say the department’s agreement with Troy highlights the agency’s recent push to ensure pregnant students are protected under Title IX, the law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools. Colleges will need to account for this stricter oversight, they warn.
Congress passed Title IX in 1972, and though the text of the law has not changed, the way the federal government enforced it has.
More than a decade ago, Title IX was most often applied in the college athletics world, where the law aimed to ensure equitable sports opportunities and resources for women's and men’s teams. But Title IX underwent a policy evolution beginning in 2011 with guidance from the Obama administration and is now also seen as a protection against campus sexual violence.
The Biden administration has proposed a Title IX regulation that would govern how colleges must investigate and potentially punish sexual harrasment and sexual assault. It would also clarify Title IX’s protections for LGBTQ students and pregnant ones.
Education Department officials released a draft rule last year, and the agency plans to put out a final, updated version in May. For now, the draft regulation states colleges would have to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant students and new parents, such as offering break times and designated lactation spaces.
The first-ever regulation on the law, approved in 1975, classified pregnancy as a Title IX-protected condition. But it’s an issue “that has been left behind” in Title IX enforcement, said Jake Sapp, an education attorney at law firm Bricker & Eckler.
Colleges often don’t know or have little understanding how Title IX extends to pregnancy and related conditions, Sapp said.
The Biden administration is hammering home this point for colleges through its regulation and by making an example of cases like Troy University’s, Sapp said.
In 2020, a Troy student filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights after the university failed to “make reasonable and responsive adjustments responsive adjustments” for her pregnancy, the Education Department said. The Alabama public institution, in the southeastern part of the state, enrolled about 14,900 students on its main campus in fall 2021.
The university’s Title IX coordinator communicated with the student inconsistently, the Office for Civil Rights said. The office said the coordinator only communicated once — en masse — with all of the student’s professors. This email came a month after the student first alerted the coordinator that she could not attend classes because of pregnancy-related complications, the department found.
The student also claimed that in one class, she never received a desk she requested that could accommodate her growing body, though the university said officials had installed it.
Troy administrators, as part of their arrangement with the Education Department, agreed to train faculty and staff members on pregnant students’ Title IX rights. The university will also survey its employees on the effectiveness of those training sessions.
Further, it will update its website to add new information on pregnancy and Title IX, as well as a link to procedures for resolving pregnancy-related or other sex discrimination grievances.
In an emailed statement, Troy University said it had begun to change its Title IX policies.
“Troy University’s highest priority is ensuring a safe and equitable learning environment for all our students,” the statement said. “We are committed to meeting the standards of Title IX and to an ongoing process of review to ensure we are meeting the needs of our students.”
Though the higher ed sector doesn’t expect a final Title IX regulation for several more months, colleges should start inspecting their own practices now, Sapp said.
The Education Department’s draft rule, he said, offers institutions a sense of how they will need to remold their policies.
Sapp also said college employees across the board should know how to handle Title IX-related accommodations. If one faculty member allowed pregnant students to take a class entirely online but another professor did not, for instance, then that could create an inequity between the students and thus present a risk of Title IX noncompliance, Sapp said.
Even before the Troy agreement, the Education Department had started drawing more attention to the issue of Title IX and pregnancy.
In June, the Education Department found Salt Lake Community College, in Utah, violated Title IX after officials encouraged a pregnant student to drop out of a course and did not excuse her pregnancy-related absences.
And four months later, the department published a guidance document detailing how Title IX applies to pregnancy and similar conditions.
Lawmakers and women’s rights advocates had encouraged the department to take a stand, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June ending the constitutional right to an abortion. Dozens of House Democrats in July demanded the Education Department reiterate how Title IX protects pregnant students.