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Girls win first battle in adding more Title IX coordinators to NYC schools

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Saide Singh,a 17-year-old senior at Bard High School Early College, speaking at School Girls Deserve Conference. Casey Vange

The City Council of New York City published Wednesday an expense budget for the 2020 fiscal year, including $857,000 to fund Title IX officers for the nation's largest school district. Title IX is a federal civil rights law that protects students against sex-based discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal funding.

The funding comes at a time when only one temporary Title IX Coordinator from the New York City Department of Education oversees 1,800 schools and 1.1 million students. Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), a group promoting the well-being of girls, held a rally and court hearing in April to address the lack of Title IX officers. It was also a chance for young women to share their stories. 

Saide Singh told CBS News she was sexually violated in middle school, and said she didn't know who to talk to about what happened to her.

Singh, who is now 17-years-old, said she ended up internalizing the incident and it began to impact her in different aspects of life.

"I often felt like what I was wearing and my body was for everyone else but me," she said during a rally held by the GGE after a court hearing where the nonprofit called for more Title IX officers.

The April hearing and rally were a part of the School Girls Deserve campaign, which launched in October and advocates for seven dedicated Title IX coordinators to be distributed throughout each of New York City's five boroughs — Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Staten Island.

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Brittany Brathwaite, Organizing and Innovative Manager of GGE, speaking during an advocacy rally at City Hall in New York City. Casey Vange 

Morgan Fletcher, GGE's manager of media relations and digital communications, said Wednesday's budget will allow the school district to hire the additional officers. She emphasized the next step is to keep schools accountable.

"While we are excited about this victory, we are now ready for the work of implementing these new roles," she told CBS News. "They need us to keep the pressure on them ... and be a resource to them as they ideally implement our recommendations and what our partner organizations and young people need."

To highlight the magnitude of the problem, Legal Services NYC filed a lawsuit against the city's Department of Education the day before the The School Girls Deserve rally and hearing. The legal agency is representing four disabled students of color who repeatedly experienced gender-based violence, including rape, assault, and harassment either on or near school grounds.

GGE said they've surveyed more than a hundred of other students who have had similar experiences — and an overwhelming percentage of those students are of color.

"I think there is a specific type of policing, especially where punishment is involved, that is applied to girls of color that is not applied to white girls," said Brittany Brathwaite, the organizing and innovative manager of Girls for Gender Equity. "Girls of color are perceived to be older and need less protection and know more about sex or be more sexual.

"I think all of that exists in the conscious minds of their teachers, of their school personnel and principles. When you see sexual harassment playing out, they're never seen as victims or worthy of protection from these things. It's just happening to them, it's a part of life, they're fast."

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Aminata Cisse, 16-year-old junior at The School for Tourism and Hospitality (far right) Michelle Grier

Aminata Cisse, a 16-year-old youth organizer for the group who attends a high school mostly comprised of students of color, said she is a witness to the hypersexualization of her peers.

Cisse said if her school had a Title IX officer who was present and accessible, it would have helped with a white teacher who she felt objectified female students.

"If there were more coordinators, you'd know the situation would be handled properly and you'd know what's OK and what's not OK," she said. "Right now, if I were to be sexually harassed in my school, I would not know who to go to. There is no one who takes that position for sexual assault."

And even when students report instances of sexual harassment and assault to school staff, GGE maintains that it is often mishandled because staff are often not properly trained to handle those situations.

Rose Leonard, now a senior at Millennium High School in Manhattan, said she learned the consequences of reporting sexual harassment to school administrators as soon as she entered high school. Her female classmate ended up being suspended for showing school administrators sexual text messages and pictures a boy in their class sent her on a consistent basis freshman year.

Leonard said the boy who sent the messages never faced any consequences.

"They kept saying she was asking for it or being too suggestive," Leonard said. "It made me feel unsafe knowing that if ever I had anything happen to me, I had no one to go to. So if anything happens to me, I should keep quiet and not say anything about it, because I might be the one to suffer the consequences later on."

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Saide Singh,17-year-old senior at Bard Highschool Early College 

Knowing what she knows now about Title IX, she said she thinks having a Title IX officer there could have helped them. And maybe her friend would not have a permanent suspension on her record.

"If we had someone to reach out to beyond our principle - and if we even knew what a Title IX coordinator was - we could reach out and say this happened to me and now I'm being punished for something I didn't even do," Leonard said.

She said having access to a Title IX officer would help her feel more protected.

Although Girls for Gender Equity is not asking for a coordinator in every school, seven coordinators would allow for one per borough and two for the larger boroughs. For the non-profit, this is a starting point in making Title IX protections more accessible to students.

"What we're calling for is someone who really understands prevention," Barthwaite said. "Someone who understands we need to get to the problem, the root of it, before it actually occurs and happens."

She said GGE plans to be intricately involved with training the new Title IX Officers but that their advocacy work surrounding this issue won't end here.

"If they open up the mechanism for people to report and they get 600 thousand complaints, they're going to need to hire more people," she said. "And we will gladly be back at City Hall asking for additional Title IX coordinators."