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SHEs in Office: Mary Simeoli

Today’s free write blog post was written by Mary Simeoli, an educator, attorney, and speaker who has shared her message of empowerment with students from coast-to-coast. Mary has a B.A. in Political Science from Quinnipiac University and a J.D. from Western New England University School of Law. A former Special Victims prosecutor and current Title IX Coordinator, she’s got a lot to say and hopes you’re ready to engage. 

 

“And what do you do for a living?”

“Oh, I work for a College… I’m the Title IX Coordinator.”

“Ohhhhhhh, yes…”

There are a few oddities about my job. Not necessarily the work I do, but in everything surrounding my actual job tasks and responsibilities.

When I tell people I’m a Title IX Coordinator, it usually solicits one of two responses. The first being, “Oh, yeah, like girls’ volleyball? I’ve heard of that!” The second is something more along the lines of, “That sounds awful.” The latter of the two responses usually equate my job exclusively with sexual assault in conjunction with some sort of commentary, for better or for worse, on the current political climate.

See, while my job is unique in many ways, one of the most unique is what people understand my job to be, if they’ve heard of it at all. By law, every college and university accepting federal funds is required to have a Title IX Coordinator. While there are many Coordinators that function as professionals, either full-time or in conjunction with another title such as Dean of Students or Assistant Athletic Director, most colleges are a one-coordinator town. That is to say, most people don’t know anyone with my job.

And unlike other elusive professions such as circus clowns, actors, or the “wolves” of Wall Street, where the general public has an understanding of the role they play or what their day-to-day might entail, a significant number of people have no clue what my job is.

While my parents’ generation saw Title IX as “the girls-in-sports thing,” most of Generation Z equates Title IX exclusively with sexual assault response and investigations. But, Title IX isn’t just one or the other; it’s both, and so much more. But, Title IX isn’t just one or the other; it’s both, and so much more. Title IX is about equity across educational experiences. This means fair hiring and disciplinary practices, opportunities in everything from coursework and clinical sites. It’s my job to ask, why are there only two women in the upper-level business management courses? As well as why don’t we have any men in the early education program?

For those that are unfamiliar: Title IX was signed into law in 1973 as a part of the Educational Amendments, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in all areas of collegiate life. Like I said, most older folks identify Title IX with sports – and I’m not knocking them, it makes total sense! When Title IX was signed into law, it was tied most closely to opportunities for women in athletics, and the law’s most visible impact remains in that area today.

Over time, as our understanding of sex and gender have changed, as women in educational settings have reached new achievements, we’ve also discovered new challenges that folks of different genders face. As our legal understanding and practice surrounding crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence change, so too does the scope of Title IX. What started as the “basis of sex” has legally grown to include discrimination or harassment relative not only to one’s biology, but also gender expression, sexual orientation, or a perceived lack of adherence to social norms related to any of the above.

In addition to my job being mostly-misunderstood or unheard of, there are a few things about my job that make it, quite arguably, unlike any other. First, it’s a “new” field for all intents and purposes. While Title IX was established in the 1970’s, the Title IX we know (and I love) of today wouldn’t come to be for almost another 40 years. It wasn’t until 2011 that institutions were required to have a Coordinator on staff, and therefore wasn’t until 2011 that many institutions even considered it.  Having graduating college in 2012, and law school in 2016, I am of the first generations of attorneys to say something like “when I grow up, I want to be a Title IX Coordinator.”

This leads me to another professional distinction: I am more often than not the youngest person and the most qualified person in the room talking about this stuff. By “the room,” I mean literally any professional space I occupy, from locker-room trainings with student-athletes to the boardroom where the College’s senior leadership team meets.  To be a relatively newly-Barred attorney and identify as being a subject matter expert is pretty cool. Anyone who works closely in government, public interest or politics can attest to the fact that while the law does change, it’s usually slowly and over time. Legal decisions generally paint broad strokes, and distinctions are left to be refined over time. Title IX, however, is not like that – this is sometimes amazing, and sometimes a mess.

Over the last 10 years, the expectations, practices, requirements and reactions to Title IX as a federal law and related state laws have changed again and again. Because of these steep and sudden changes, the job descriptions associated with my role have been written and re-written in an attempt to keep up. What used to be a responsibility tacked on to an assistant athletic director soon became a role where “3 to 5 years of experience” would be nice. That then became “J.D. desired,” and eventually, “J.D. required.”

I’m not going to lie: to be a “young, scrappy, and hungry” female attorney, it suits me just fine to be designated as the most informed or the primary decision-maker on the cases that come before me.The final unique and constant thread of my role is the imposition of political ideologies. Arguably, there are many roles that can be politically painted that are, inherently, not. The lens through or publication for which a journalist writes, the type of institution or procedures a nurse will or will not effectuate, the students a teacher teaches and institution where the learning is done… all of these “non-political” jobs can be spliced into having a political nature. After all, politics affects us in all areas of our life.

The difference, however, is that most other inherently political-or-not professions function along a spectrum, one end to the other. My job? Well, my job, if done well, should sit right in the middle, accessible to every side of the proverbial line. But that’s not the space that I’m perceived as occupying. One side of the “line” wants me to be the “feminazi” (gross, I know, I hate that term, too) archetype that hates men and draws a conclusion before I’ve even open a file; the “other” often struggles to understand how equity can exist in the same place as survivor language.

I do my best to function in a “broken” system; to show respect to every person who comes in the door. I work to educate my peers and teammates on bias, best practices and trauma-informed investigations. I never want a student to worry that their race, for example, will dictate the result of an investigation. I also never want a student to feel that their feelings, memory, or trauma are being dismissed.

 I see people at their absolute worst, but I’ve also committed to reclaiming the absolute best.
This job is really hard, but it really matters, and I remind myself constantly what a privilege it is to be in the flames. My goal is to eradicate gender-based discrimination and make education more accessible to everyone. For now, I’ll work on my corner of the universe… but you’re on notice, and I’ll be coming for your corner soon, too.

This is the last of our October series. Make sure you didn’t miss a beat and catch up on our latest podcast episode now!

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