Sunday, October 22, 2000

A question of discrimination

Suit claims boys', girls' sports not equal in Boone County

By Susan Vela and Lori Hayes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BOONE COUNTY — It started with a softball field about 2 miles from Boone County High School.

        Chrissi Egan, a 15-year-old sophomore who lettered in softball, noted the field's location behind an elementary school. She and the other players must find their own transportation to and from the field, whether it's for practice or games. And there are no lights or dugouts, no locker rooms, restrooms or press boxes.

[photo] Boone County High School junior varsity volleyball coach Amy Petroze (standing) addresses her team in the girls' locker room before a game.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        Not so for Boone High's all-boy baseball team. Its diamond is on school grounds. Its field has lights, dugouts, locker rooms. There are even members of the press in its press boxes.

        All sports aren't treated equally, but is this discrimination?

        Chrissi thinks so. Her parents and two sets of others filed a lawsuit last spring that recently became a class-action Title IX discrimination case covering all Boone County high school females. The only suit of its kind in the Tristate area, it adds a legal thrust to a national movement of parents pushing for equitable treatment for boys and girls in high school sports.

        During the past five years, the number of complaints about gender discrimination in high school sports has nearly tripled, according to the federal agency that investigates the complaints.

        Ed Lawrence, father of Heather Lawrence, a star softball player at Boone, explained why his family joined the others in filing the suit.

    What is Title IX? Title IX, a section of the 1972 federal education amendments, 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.”
    How can my school comply? Title IX involves a three-prong test. Schools need meet only one of the prongs to be compliant. They are:
    1. Sponsoring athletic participation opportunities for male and females substantially proportionate to their enrollments.
    2. Showing a history and continuing practice of program expansion that demonstrates responsiveness to the developing interests and abilities of males and females.
    3. Demonstrating that the interests and abilities of females have been fully and effectively accommodated by a school's athletic program.

        “What I'm trying to do is make sure that my daughter is treated fairly and has the same opportunities that my son has,” he said.

        “If you put boys up on the pedestal all the time and have them believe that they are on a different playing field than the girls, then what you're doing is implanting in the boys' minds that the girls are lesser.

        “It carries over to all parts of society.”

        But that isn't what's happening at Boone County High, Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

        “We really feel we're providing a fair and equitable system for all kids,” he said.

        “We have gone over this with a fine-tooth comb.... I appreciate what they're saying, but the reality is we've attempted to do everything that we physically can do at this time.”

        He stressed that Boone County's middle schools offer more female sports than male sports, that male and female coaches get parity in pay, and that all coaches get the same training.

        He also noted as evidence that some of the district's top female athletes have gone on to compete at the college level, including Suzie Smith and Michelle Cottrell, who play basketball at Northern Kentucky University.

        The lawsuit, he said, was filed mainly to pressure the school into putting a girls' field on school grounds, but the campus doesn't have room for a new field.

        “I'm not a stupid person,” he said. “If I could find a place ..., I would do it.”

        He has considered letting the girls play on the boys' field, but that would leave the district wondering where to let the baseball team play, he said.

        The case is about more than just a playing field, Chrissi's and Heather's parents say. The parents of Lindsey and Nicole Gatewood also were among the original plaintiffs.

        The suit asserts that Boone County Schools allows unfair disparities to exist between male and female athletic programs - in coaching, equipment, scheduling, publicity, locker rooms, travel expenses and medical and training facilities. The lawsuit alleges that the school is violating Title IX.

“Behind the curve”
Part of the 1972 federal education amendments, Title IX states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex ... be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

        Over nearly three decades, Title IX has sparked astounding change for women's sports, experts say, fostering such internationally known athletes as Mia Hamm of soccer, Venus and Serena Williams of tennis, and Sheryl Swoopes of basketball.

        “It was a great piece of legislation as far as girls' sports go,” said John Gillis of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis.

        Now there are 2.7 million girls competing in high school sports across the nation - eight times the number in 1971, the year before Title IX.

        Athletic opportunities for girls also have increased.

        Between 1989 and 1999, girls' soccer teams doubled in number to 7,931 nationwide. Girls' golf rose to 6,771 teams — a 75 percent jump.

        Yet at the college level, Title IX's changes have prompted allegations of discrimination against male athletes.

        The University of Cincinnati eliminated its co-ed rifle, men's tennis and men's indoor track teams to comply with Title IX. Last year, Miami University dropped its men's soccer, tennis and wrestling programs.

        Some of Miami's male students sued, but this year, U.S. District Judge Sandra S. Beckwith dismissed their claims against the school. The claims remain against then-President James Garland, Athletic Director Joel Maturi and the board of trustees, who are set to face trial in June.

        High school athletics are the focus of more Title IX complaints than are college sports programs.

        According to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, high school discrimination complaints grew from 52 in 1995 to 129 in 1999. Over the five years, 425 complaints were directed at high school sports, compared with 154 complaints involving college sports.

        “There's a growing culture of sports in this country, and there's a lot of children and parents invested in these issues,” said Paul Haagen, a Duke University sports law professor.

        “A lot of sports programs have been run by men, particularly "good ol' boys.' You're just getting people who were behind the curve doing what they've always done and not responding to the law.”

Classmates react
At Boone County High, some students say they're bewildered by the lawsuit.

        It angers senior Keith Churchhill, 18, who plays soccer. He believes it explains why the soccer team didn't get new uniforms this year.

        “It's not right what they did,” he said. “They're trying to take advantage of the system. It's awful.”

        Several Boone County varsity volleyball players said at a game last month that they hadn't heard of Title IX until their peers' parents sued.

        “We don't feel mistreated,” said Jenny Schwab, an 18-year-old senior. “It's the way it's always been. We've never known anything else.”

        Yet this year the girls' volleyball team has moved to the boys' locker room, which is about twice as big. The boys now change in the girls' old spot.

        Boys' sports tend to get more respect and attention, said Sara Hollowell, 17. The school holds pep rallies and dinners for the football team; the girls teams' don't get as much publicity, she said.

        Amy Petroze, coach of the school's junior varsity girls' volleyball team, said that while boys' sports get more recognition, “I don't think there's any inequalities.”

        When Chrissi attended the high school's Sept. 22 homecoming football game against Campbell County High School, it angered her to see the bleachers packed, the marching band playing nearby and parents as plentiful as students in the stands.

        “It's not fair at all,” she said.

        “Why are the football players the gods of everything? There's never anybody at our games. I guess I'm just jealous.”

        Her parents look at it as bravery, they said. They praise her for the research she has put into the issue and the backlash she and others are enduring.

        Chrissi doesn't mind that some of her schoolmates rib her, saying that the softball players are “crying” over a mere lack of dugouts.

        “They're pretty ignorant,” she said. “It should only be fair, since this is a public school, that boys and girls get treated equal.”

        When U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman certified the lawsuit as a class action last month, he urged both sides of the issue to enter mediation. But years could still pass — and Chrissi, Heather and the Gatewood sisters could graduate — before their parents' case concludes.

        “That's fine with me, as long as (the school's policies) change,” she said. “I want to finish it.”

        Athletic offerings under federal scrutiny

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