By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009
The baseball field boasts a $50,000 press box, a locker room and a concession stand. The softball field? A faded wood shed and a port-a-potty.
Now C.D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge is under investigation by federal officials for sex discrimination, joining schools in Charles and Frederick counties and 47 other school systems nationwide that are under scrutiny for possible disparities between their softball and baseball facilities.
The schools are being investigated for possible violations of Title IX, the 1972 federal rules governing equity between the sexes. Any educational program that receives federal funding is required to provide equal opportunities and facilities for boys and girls.
In an era when most sports have boys' and girls' equivalents that use the same fields, pools and equipment, high school baseball and softball fields remain separated by the sexes. Softball fields are smaller than those used in baseball, and the two types of field cannot be used interchangeably. The difference can contribute to inequalities.
When Hylton High's baseball team plays, an announcer and journalists survey the scene in comfort from the second story of a tidy cinder-block structure that overlooks the field. Reporters sit in the bleachers at the softball field. Hungry softball fans can't go for a hot dog at the concession stand, which is near the press box at the baseball field -- and doesn't open for softball games.
And fans who drank too much soda couldn't find any relief near the softball field until this spring, when a mustard-colored port-a-potty was installed along left field. Baseball patrons can slip into the restrooms at the football field, which is next door. The baseball facilities have a locker room; softball facilities don't.
"There are so many things that field is in lack of," said Robin Dougalewicz, whose daughter is on the junior varsity softball team. "The county doesn't seem to want to do anything there. . . . It's not fair to the girls."
School officials said they have been addressing inequalities for several years but acknowledged that more needs to be done. "We're still making progress," said Ken Blackstone, a spokesman for Prince William County schools.
The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education began investigating possible violations of the regulations at Hylton in March, after a softball player's parent complained.
Investigations typically last six months and don't presuppose any Title IX violations, said John White, a spokesman for the Department of Education. Schools found in violation are directed to correct the problem or risk losing federal funding. It would be tough for Prince William to find extra money this year; the budget for the coming school year represents the first year-to-year spending cut in memory.
If there are violations at Hylton, they might stem from too much generosity. Blackstone said that the press box and the concession stand were paid for in the mid-1990s by a grant from the Cecil and Irene Hylton Foundation. Other amenities, such as an in-field irrigation system, were paid for with money raised by the baseball team's booster club.
"The culture at that school has really supported baseball," Blackstone said.
But even though the facilities weren't paid for by the school, they can still constitute a Title IX violation. The law applies to what's available, not where it came from.
In recent years, the Prince William school system has worked to improve softball fields across the county, Blackstone said. Since 2005, about $2 million has been spent to install lighting at the softball fields at all 10 high schools. In the past two years, the dugouts have been enlarged at Hylton, better soil has been spread on the infield and other improvements have been made, he said.
Blackstone said the schools take equity into account when planning projects and when accepting donations from outside groups. He couldn't recall a case when a donation had been turned down.
"You hope it would never come to that point," he said.