What This Title IX Case About Hazing Means for Women on Campus

Ms. Magazine | 8/15/2019 | Betsy Butler | Full Article Here.


The U.S. Women’s National Team has demonstrated the incredible impact Title IX has made toward reducing gender discrimination in sports—but athletic opportunity is just one way this law enforces gender equality. A recent court case demonstrates that Title IX’s protections extend to male fraternities, and the ripple effect of that could make women safer on campus.

Panhellenic Recruitment. (Kelsey / Creative Commons)

For the first time, a federal court has held that a university can be sued under Title IX for discriminating against male students participating in Greek life. Last month, in a case brought against Louisiana State University by the parents of Max Gruver, who was tragically killed in 2017 as a result of fraternity hazing, the court ruled that if the family is able to prove that LSU knew dangerous misconduct was rampant within its fraternities and had a policy of general inaction—in contrast to strong corrective action taken in response to sorority misconduct—a jury could infer that LSU’s discriminatory policy put Greek males at a greater risk, in violation of Title IX.

The Fierberg National Law Group, PLLC, representing Max’s family in Gruver vs. LSU et al., points out that while LSU was aware of numerous documented incidents of dangerous hazing and misconduct at LSU fraternities, the school continued to send glossy brochures to incoming students promoting the benefits of Greek life without mention of the risks posed. While dangerous fraternity behavior was being ignored, non-life-threatening female sorority antics were scrutinized and severely punished.

Max’s family and the team at The Fierberg National Law Group argued that LSU did indeed discriminate against their students on the basis of sex. The complaint alleges that although sororities “do not have a culture or long-documented history of dangerous hazing and misconduct… sanctions LSU has imposed on the sororities have been significantly greater in length and degree than sanctions LSU generally imposes on fraternities for comparable misconduct.”

Perversely, the school’s practice of punishing women and sororities for hazing while indulging men ultimately put male students in danger.

“This ruling means that a school can face liability for violating Title IX if it disregards or minimizes reports of Greek male hazing,” Jon Fazzola, one of the lead attorneys for the family, explains, “and, in doing so, creates a greater risk of danger for males compared to females in Greek Life.”

It’s a new frontier for Title IX that comes with big implications.

Passed 47 years ago, Title IX states that “no person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” It has primarily been the basis for lawsuits demanding equal opportunities for girls and women, although proving that a school has intentionally participated in other forms of gender discrimination has been historically more challenging. Only a few cases have successfully made this argument in the context of sexual assault—notably, one brought against Baylor University was cited by the Court in the Gruver opinion. Building on what little body of law existed, Gruver vs. LSU strengthens the foundation to hold schools accountable for policies and practices that intentionally discriminate against one gender, putting them at risk.

At its heart, this case confirms that schools cannot turn a blind eye to a pervasive issue that prohibits students of one gender from accessing the same educational opportunities or benefits as their classmates. The harmful, deep-rooted cultural standards this case exposes serve no one.  “LSU treated fraternities and sororities differently because of long-held and outdated gender stereotypes,” the family alleges in its complaint. “It minimized the hazing of males as ‘boys being boys’ engaging in masculine rites of passage.”

Apply this logic to sexual assault: One in five women will experience an assault during her time in college, and survivors often avoid class for fear of seeing their assailant on campus, which greatly compounds their struggle to maintain academic focus in the wake of trauma. If plaintiffs can prove that their school was aware of problems, and yet responded in a way that disadvantaged female students’ ability to access equal educational opportunities, they could have a case under Title IX. Fear of a Title IX lawsuit may help fuel schools’ urgency in addressing these situations.

While this case is not an indictment of the Greek system, fraternities are often criticized for breeding a toxic environment that exacerbates and leads to sexual assault while universities look away. Studies have shown that fraternity members are three times more likely to commit rape than other male students. Perhaps if universities aggressively respond to and punish hazing and other misconduct in their Greek systems, women—as well as men—will be safer on campus.

“As a result of this ruling, universities should be on notice that they cannot promote and benefit from fraternities while pretending they have no responsibility to protect young men and make Greek life safe for everyone,” Fazzola says. “The family is hopeful that now universities will use their power and resources to assist families in changing a fundamentally dangerous industry.”

At a time when Trump’s Administration seeks to roll back Title IX protections for student sexual assault survivors, it is critically important to confirm that our institutions have a responsibility to provide safe, equitable spaces where all students can learn and thrive on equal terms. The ruling in Gruver vs. LSU affirms that, thanks to Title IX, schools cannot shirk this duty. Hopefully it will lead schools to be less deliberately indifferent.

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