When most people think of Title IX, the civil rights legislation passed as part of the Educational Amendments of 1972, they most often envision high school girls playing a wide variety of sports, representing their schools and communities. People think of Title IX as girls participating on an equal number of athletic teams, receiving equal financial support from their school, enjoying equal access to competitions, facilities and equipment, and being equally heralded by their student body.
The law is much broader in scope than simply making sure that there is an equivalent girls team for every boys team that a school offers. It also protects all students from sexual harassment as well as any type of discrimination that kept some individuals, not just females, from being able to enjoy the thrills that comes from being a part of a team.
Title IX is an educational law and, therefore, forbids all forms of discrimination in any aspect of a student’s school day. Such defenses are rarely needed to make sure of equal access to education happening during the school day, but occasionally are needed to ensure that students are all treated fairly.
The athletic fields and classrooms are not the only school locations where students participate and interact in school-sponsored, school-supported activities. High schools offer many clubs and cocurricular programs that are also subject to the equality and freedom that Title IX provides. However, have those requirements been necessary to provide students with equal access to forensics, drama, marching band, color guard, vocal ensembles and other non-athletic activities? Not to the extent that they have been needed in athletics and in sexual harassment cases. Why?
The “why” is due to the inclusionary nature of cocurricular activities, particularly those in music, theatre and other collective activities. They are, by nature, not gender-based, such as with athletics on the playing field or court. And while developed physical skills are an important part of sports, along with a player’s ‘game-savvy’, their intelligence on how to best use those skills and those of their teammates to be successful, such developed traits are not a prerequisite for student participation in theatre, forensics, computer club and even music.
In high school performing arts programs, there is a “job-for-everyone” focus that co-curriculars all share and foster in their participants. “Join the drama club, and the director will tap into whatever skills and likes you have to find a place for you among the various roles the next production encompasses.” “Sign up for debate and a discussion with the coach will ensure that you have a topic to research and ways to develop your presentation.” There is no consideration of gender, race, hair color or height, even for roles in plays and musicals, although males usually get the male roles and vice-versa, but not always and not as a hard-and-fast rule. Unlike athletics, there is no need for a separate but equal theatre group or forensics team as the end result is not gender-based.
So, where has Title IX affected the performing arts? In small, but important ways. First, guaranteeing safe participation for all students, the hallmark of the law. While it is a rare occurrence, there are cases where Title IX was needed to help provide guidance for schools to better provide equity in all cocurriculars for their students.
Title IX is also used to ensure that the performing arts continue to be inclusive in every way possible, just as the vast majority of programs have been and continue to be. And it’s used to make sure the few gender-based offerings are equitably supported – a barbershop group offered if there is a Sweet Adelines, a men’s chorus to balance a women’s choir.
Sports were in the forefront in the development and updating of Title IX’s requirements, but its broad reach covers any and all parts of a student’s school involvement – in class and out of class; before, during and after school; and inside and outside the school facility. Its effect on cocurricular activities has not been as challenging for schools nor as newsworthy, but it still provides the protections all students need and deserve. Title IX – equality on the stage as well as the playing field.
Steffen Parker is a music and digital media educator from Vermont who serves on the NFHS High School Today Publications Committee.