Voices from the Field

Voices from the Field is a place for administrators, teachers, school support staff, community, and family members to learn what experts -- researchers, practitioners, family -- from across the country think by reading a short post that includes the latest promising practices on a range of school climate topics, along with references and related resources.

How can Title IX be used to promote student safety and mental health on higher education campuses?

Building trauma-sensitive practices into student health care delivery and student supports in higher education settings is critical for overall success. Building off the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments’ Safe Place: Trauma-sensitive practice for health centers serving higher education students toolkit, this blog post shares how Title IX can be a helpful tool to promote student safety and mental health on higher education campuses.

The genesis of Title IX

When Congress passed the Federal Education Amendments Act in 1972, the Title IX clause paved the way for students to experience an education free from sex discrimination. The clause succinctly states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title IX applies to a variety of programs but has been critically visible in its impact on promoting opportunities for women and girls in sports and athletics, especially at the college level.

Title IX expands

Since the inception of Title IX, its protections have expanded through federal regulatory actions as well as decades-long legal challenges in the courts. Various lawsuits resulted in broader application of Title IX to include greater protections from sexual harassment and sex discrimination while promoting gender equity in a wider variety of educational settings. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Education was given the responsibility of overseeing Title IX compliance through its Office for Civil Rights. The Obama administration took significant actions to define the responsibility of educational institutions to protect students from sexual harassment and sexual violence, increasing the national spotlight on sexual violence on campus. Today, the Department is poised to amend regulations to restore vital protections for all students while strengthening protections for LGBTQI+ students by clarifying that Title IX protections against discrimination based on sex apply to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The role of Title IX coordinators

Across the United States, every college and university that receives federal financial assistance now typically has at least one designated employee who coordinates efforts to comply with and carry out Title IX responsibilities. In recent years, these responsibilities have grown to encompass increasing student safety on campus, ensuring compliance with Title IX regulations, coordinating grievance procedures, and working to decrease sex discrimination. Title IX coordinators routinely encourage and coordinate the campus-wide use of mental health supports, including trauma-informed practices, to help students suffering from a variety of traumas, not just those resulting from sexual misconduct and gender-based violence.

Discussion with a Title IX coordinator

To get an inside look at what is happening on one higher education campus, we talked with a veteran Title IX coordinator. Jennifer Stotter is the director and Title IX coordinator of the Office of Equal Opportunity/Title IX at the University of Hawaii, Hilo. UH Hilo is ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse campuses and a leader in addressing campus safety in culturally appropriate and relevant ways. “For me,” Stotter says, “cultural appropriateness and cultural relevance are two of the most important things to consider when working with students. UH Hilo is a native Hawaiian-serving institution, so we also serve the needs of students from a cultural and historic trauma perspective. Thinking about everybody on our campus is a high priority for me. We are very aware of who our students are, and we work to make sure that they feel valued and that the information we provide is meeting them where they are.”

In our conversation, Stotter described how her university has become more proactive, ensuring that students know their rights under Title IX, while improving student safety and mental health supports, especially post-COVID. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How does UH Hilo reach students to let them know what supports are available to them?

Through Title IX we provide trauma trainings across campus and emphasize listening to the voice of students. We start by training anyone who interacts with students. We have been able to require trauma-informed and sensitivity training for administrators, decision makers, faculty, and others, and to get more resources into specific areas like our health and wellness centers. I was the first Title IX coordinator on campus in 2014, and that seemed to provide more visibility, informing students about what supports were available. But even if students knew what was available, the options can sometimes feel overwhelming, so we now offer a lot more training on student rights.

In Their Words

Hear Stotter talk about students’ changing attitudes as they learned about their rights:

“So, once we hit the pavement and started doing training and educating people about their rights and what students should expect from a university, they made their voices known. And, so, they felt a lot more comfortable, and they felt like they could—they would be heard, and people were willing to do something about the situation.”

What are some of the biggest issues of concern that students told you about?

Students told us that they are mainly concerned with strengthening safety measures on campus as well as addressing sexual misconduct and gender-based violence. For example, we already had blue lights and call boxes at random places around campus, but students told us that that was not adequate. They wanted brighter lights and more of them, so they could better see what might be around the corner. We were also able to work with the director of our Student Life Center to put additional safety measures in place. A lot of young women said that they were very uncomfortable with the fact that people could see in while they were working out. There was one person who had a stalker, and he would stand outside the window and stare. The center ultimately put coverings on the windows that prevent others from seeing inside. I think efforts like these have made a difference to students.

In Their Words

Hear Stotter talk about the impact of listening to students:

“So, people were a lot more receptive to making changes that probably needed to be made for a long time that just got pushed on the back burner. I think that was really positive. We’ve also been able to ensure that there are escorts available for people who don’t feel safe on campus. We’ve made a lot of positive moves, I think, to increase student safety.”

What has been the impact of the pandemic on campus?

The pandemic has definitely been another stressor with which we are dealing. We know that domestic violence increased throughout the pandemic and responding to that has been one of our biggest challenges. Sometimes we are met with skepticism when we talk to faculty about providing support measures for students who are experiencing domestic violence. I feel it is important to integrate it into our thinking and raise awareness about the different kinds of triggers for those who have experienced trauma. We also know that some of our employees are also experiencing domestic violence and other traumas, so we want our human resources staff to know how to respond effectively and not exacerbate the situation.

What do you think other colleges and universities can do to further empower students on their campuses?

Every adult who interacts with students who present with trauma, no matter what the specific trauma is, needs to know how to respond appropriately. One of the challenges, of course, is that faculty and other staff do not always have time to attend trainings, and in the case of our university, because we are so far away, it is expensive to go to trainings or bring them to us. We try to take advantage of trainings, materials, and supports that are available and easy to access online. The more resources that can be offered, the better!

In Their Words

Hear Stotter talk about one strategy she uses to disseminate information:

“Identify a champion. So, who could really be that within the various colleges who might be able talk about this and share it. Sometimes I’ll just start with a dean, and I’ll just say, ‘Hey, can I get in front of you the next time you have a department chairs’ meeting? Can I come in for just half an hour and do a talk.’”


This blog post was authored by Deborah Fisher, NCSSLE training specialist.

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