D.C. schools agree to give girls opportunity to play sports to settle civil rights complaint

D.C. school officials have agreed to settle one of two civil rights complaints charging that traditional public high school sports programs systematically discriminate against girls, in violation of the federal Title IX law.

Girls will now be given the same opportunity to play sports as boys, according to a settlement agreement that Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson signed with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.

And if the D.C. schools don’t, or fail to keep to a series of tight deadlines set out, the agreement warns that the Office of Civil Rights may refer the school system to the Justice Department for legal action to more formally hold officials’ feet to the fire.

“This is a signpost to the future,” said Herb Dempsey, a retired educator and activist in Washington state who filed the complaint in May 2012. “Ultimately, I’m hoping that a girl born in Washington, D.C., will no longer have to pay a price for being treated like a second-class citizen.”

Melissa Salmanowitz, a schools spokeswoman, said the settlement “does not constitute a finding of fault on the part of DCPS but does define a framework which will work to benefit both our male and female student athletes.”

Dempsey, who began his Title IX fights when his now-grown daughters were in school and had a dearth of opportunities for sports, is head of a loose coalition of retired men that calls itself “Old Guys for Title IX.” The group has filed thousands of complaints on behalf of female student athletes against school districts across the country — most recently in Colonial Beach, Va. — because, he said, the boys’ baseball fields have bright lights and the girls’ softball fields go dark at dusk.

“When it comes to Title IX, schools in D.C.,” he said, “are about as bad as I’d ever care to see.”

A second Title IX complaint, filed in the summer by the National Women’s Law Center, is under investigation. That complaint found that the gap between the percentage of girls enrolled in high school and the percentage playing sports is as high as 18 in some schools, higher than in many other districts with active Title IX investigations.

“This is a good first step, but D.C. has a long way to go to make sure it’s giving girls a fair shot at playing sports,” said Neena Chaudhry, legal counsel for the law center. “Our complaint also found inequities in coaching and facilities that this settlement didn’t address.”

According to the settlement, dated Sept. 27, D.C.’s traditional public high schools will now be held to tight deadlines to begin collecting better information about girls’ participation in sports and reporting it to the Office of Civil Rights by July 1 every year that the settlement is monitored.

“Nobody was keeping records,” Dempsey said. “And what you don’t count, you can’t change.”

The settlement also requires the schools to, among other things, survey eighth-grade and high school-age girls about what sports they may be interested in playing, to compile all requests for girls’ teams made to school officials in recent years, and to canvass surrounding areas about their sports offerings for girls.

School officials have also agreed to expand team rosters if girls’ interest is high in sports now offered — creating junior varsity teams, for example. The agreement also requires D.C. high schools to “take ongoing steps to develop students’ interest and ability,” by creating sports clubs or allowing female student athletes to compete for other schools.

D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) recently introduced Title IX legislation — co-signed by every council member — requiring that all public and charter schools in the District, at every level, ensure equal opportunity for girls to play sports. He plans to continue to push the bill, staff members said Tuesday, because the settlement will not be binding in perpetuity.

The expansions are not to come at the expense of other existing teams, the settlement states. The federal monitoring will stop once the percentage of girls and boys enrolled in schools is proportionate to the percentage of girls and boys participating in sports, or school officials can prove they’re making a good faith effort to make it so.

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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