OCR Reminds IHEs That Pregnancy Is Protected Under Title IX Too

3 min

Often, the focus on Title IX compliance and crafting institutional procedures for institutions of higher education (IHEs) is dominated by more commonly arising issues like sexual misconduct allegations. However, recently, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announced a resolution of a student's complaint against her university that serves as a reminder to all IHEs: your Title IX policy and compliance efforts must address pregnancy-related accommodation requests too!

On January 26, 2023, OCR announced the resolution of its investigation into a southern university's handling of a pregnant student's requests for pregnancy accommodations. OCR found the university's generally haphazard and uncoordinated response to the student's requests failed to adequately respond to the student's reasonable needs. The student's requests included asking for a larger desk to fit her growing body that she never received and being denied the ability to make up work and excused absences due to her pregnancy, resulting in a failing grade in one class. OCR took issue with the lack of centralized process for the student to communicate her requests and needs to the university—the student had to make multiple requests to both the Title IX coordinator and individual professors, but timely and responsive adjustments were not made for her.

OCR's resolution required numerous commitments from the university to resolve the investigation. It indicated in no uncertain terms that OCR will take enforcement efforts seriously to ensure pregnant students have equal access to IHEs' programs. This also isn't the first time OCR has signaled its intent to strengthen enforcement efforts addressing pregnancy issues. The current administration's proposed Title IX regulations, expected to be released in final version in May 2023, include safeguards for pregnant students that include clarifying IHEs' obligations to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant individuals. We can likely expect OCR will continue taking a closer look at IHEs' responses to pregnancy-related issues in the future.

OCR's resolution with the university provides a useful roadmap for how IHEs can think about improving their Title IX policies and procedures. It's never too early for an institution to begin reviewing its policies and procedures for the next academic year, and IHEs should consider including the following items if their policies or procedures don't adequately cover them already:

  • Make sure the Title IX policy includes protections for the rights of pregnant students, including their right to request accommodations, the process through which they can make requests, and how they can submit complaints for pregnancy-related discrimination through the IHE's grievance procedure.
  • Designate a point of contact to field and address pregnancy accommodation requests that is clearly communicated in the IHE's Title IX policy and website. This individual should coordinate the IHE's response to ensure pregnant students are treated consistently.
  • Conduct faculty and staff training to make sure they understand the IHE's Title IX policy and the rights afforded to pregnant students under Title IX.
  • As with all Title IX-related issues, ensure the IHE is tracking requests for pregnancy accommodations and recording its responses.

We will continue to monitor updates to Title IX regulations, guidance, and best practices. If your IHE has questions regarding Title IX compliance, your policies and procedures, or the handling of potential investigations, please contact the authors of this article or any lawyer in Venable's Labor and Employment Group.