Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Wilson High School freshman athlete Helen Malhotra. This version has been corrected.

Hope Olson, center, goes through soccer drills at Sal's Soccer Camp, held at Wilson High School on Thursday in Washington. Olson was one of three girls in the camp and the only female high school player. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

At Wilson High school, freshman athlete Helen Malhotra spent last fall seeing some girls’ soccer games bumped from the nicer artificial turf fields in favor of boys’ football practice. In the spring, she passed the baseball team playing on a field next to the school as her coach and parents drove heavy softball equipment to a public park and she and her teammates jogged the mile and a half there and back.

“It was so unfair,” she said. “It makes me feel that the world hasn’t changed that much. Even though people say, ‘Oh, sexism is over, women get equal opportunities.’ It’s not true.”

At each of 15 traditional public high schools in the District, girls who want to play sports have fewer opportunities to play than boys and often have lower-quality facilities, fields, uniforms, lockers and coaching.

The disparity in traditional District high schools between the percentage of girls enrolled in school and the girls who participate in sports is not only larger than that of any other public school district in the Washington region, it is wider than many similar urban districts such as Detroit and Boston, federal data show. And the steep gaps in some District schools such as Roosevelt, Ballou and Phelps are far higher than those in a number of schools that the U.S. Education Department has investigated recently for civil rights violations.

On Thursday morning, after several years of unfruitful negotiating, the National Women’s Law Center filed a formal complaint with the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights charging District public schools with violating Title IX, the federal law that outlaws sex discrimination in schools and school sports.

Gender gap in DCPS sports participation

The problem is widespread nationally “but these gaps in the District are really steep,” said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel with the National Women’s Law Center, who has worked on Title IX issues for 15 years. “At Roosevelt, the gap is 26 percent. That’s a huge red flag.

The Office of Civil Rights confirmed that it is already investigating another Title IX athletic discrimination complaint against DCPS that was filed in May 2012.

DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said school officials couldn’t comment on the specifics of the complaint but said they looked forward to “correcting the record.”

“Over the past several years, we have pursued an aggressive agenda to help ensure our female student-athletes are able to compete in a variety of athletics,” she said.

The gaps in girls’ sports participation in D.C. high schools range from a low of 5 percent at majority female Banneker to 19 percent at Wilson to 26 percent at both Ballou and Roosevelt, according to 2010 data that the law center obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Nine of the District’s 15 traditional high schools have gaps exceeding 10 percent.

The complaint does not include Ellington, an arts school that does not have a sports program; the city’s alternative schools; or the 40 percent of the system’s students in charter schools, Chaudhry said, because there are no sports equity data available for them.

Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), would not comment on the complaint, but he said Gray has long supported the goals of Title IX and last year appointed Clark Ray to a new “statewide” athletic director position to ensure equity at both traditional and charter schools.

“The district has been working very hard to provide robust athletic programs to all children who are interested in participating,” Ribeiro said.

Thursday’s Title IX complaint joins a growing number filed in recent years. From 2009 to 2011, the Office of Civil Rights initiated 17 investigations and received more than 900 complaints, the majority about disparities in sports.

Research has found that girls’ participation in sports not only boosts academic achievement, test scores, self-esteem, leadership skills and future workforce participation, but it reduces risky behavior and rates of obesity and teen pregnancy. Excelling at sports can open doors to college scholarships.

Studies by the Women’s Sports Foundation have also shown that girls of color are more likely to play sports through their schools. Seventy-eight percent of the girls in DCPS high schools are African American and 15 percent are Hispanic.

“People say, ‘There are so many challenges for the schools or the District already, why this?’ And that’s why,” Chaudhry said. “It matters for these girls.’’

To demonstrate compliance with Title IX, a school district must show that the percentage of girls participating in sports is equal to the percentage of girls attending the schools. If not, the district must demonstrate that it is consistently expanding opportunities for girls or accommodating girls’ interests. Female athletes must also receive equal benefits and services.

The National Women’s Law Center’s complaint argues that the District fails in each case.

In 2010, following requests for information from the law center, the District surveyed girls in seven of its high schools about their interests, which ranged from basketball to tennis to skiing. In 2011, DCPS added two girls’ sports: bowling and flag football.

“I was a little disappointed when they came up with flag football, because I don’t know where [girls] can get a scholarship off flag football,” said Janice Johnson, parent of three former DCPS athletes who heads the Sankofa Project to promote girls in sports.

Daja Dorsey, who graduated from Ballou in June and played basketball, volleyball, softball and ran track there, said the boys’ football and basketball teams got more intensive coaching, more attention from recruiters and scouts and more college scholarships than did the girls’ teams. “It was a whole different approach for the boys,” she said. “I wouldn’t have minded that.”

Several female athletes, like Malhotra at Wilson, say the boys’ teams get to use better fields and have better schedules. “I’ll have practice later [next year] if I have to, just to play on a real field,” said Karina Bond, Wilson’s softball coach.

Volleyball coach Wagma Mommandi, who was contacted before the complaint was filed, said when she came to Cardozo four years ago to start a volleyball program, school officials wouldn’t replace a crooked net. The first time her team played a game, many couldn’t serve over a standard net. “It was pretty discouraging,” she said.

But, she said, despite an 18 percent participation gap, Cardozo’s sports equity for girls has improved in the past two years after a new principal and athletic director made it a priority. And Lesly Gaetjens, longtime coach at Columbia Heights Education Campus, or Bell, where the gap is 7 percent, said some schools make an effort to recruit girls.

“In our school, they go out of their way to try to have the girls play,” he said.

Still, in a city where boys’ football and basketball are marquee events, parents, female athletes, coaches and advocates have long complained of unfair treatment for girls.

“There has to be some equality,” said Eric White, girls’ basketball coach at Wilson. “We’ve played some teams that haven’t had their uniforms changed in years.”

Girls at Roosevelt won a soccer championship in 2002, but after their coach left, the school never replaced her, so they haven’t had a team since. The Roosevelt girls’ basketball team, like the boys’ team, was a powerhouse, winning the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championships in 2004 and 2005 and advancing to six straight finals. But when the head coach left in 2010 and the new one didn’t recruit players for the girls’ team, Roosevelt canceled its girls’ basketball season and has never recovered.

“They kind of dropped the ball,” admitted Daryl Tilghman, longtime Roosevelt athletic director and now football assistant at Bishop McNamara.

Keenan Keller, a father of two daughters who has fought for years for greater equity for girls’ sports in the District, said that there aren’t school-sponsored sports programs for girls that start early, like Pop Warner football does for boys, to develop interest or talent.

As a result, the girls whose parents can afford to put them in rec leagues or private clubs. The disparities become apparent — and dispiriting — by middle and high school when games become blowouts, he and others said, leaving more skilled girls yearning for a fairer match and the less-skilled girls discouraged.

“There’s real inequity in wards 7 and 8,” Keller said. But even in other parts of the city, girls who are serious about sports and want to play in college, like his own daughter, are leaving the public school system. “DCPS is fighting for enrollment because they don’t have robust sports programs. They don’t realize how important this is for everyone.”

Natalie Randolph, who made national headlines when she became Coolidge’s head football coach in 2010, said boys are being shortchanged, too, as the District has difficulty attracting and paying top coaching talent. Coolidge’s boys’ baseball team folded midseason this year.

“Title IX is great, but I think D.C. has to get some other things together before we can really tackle Title IX,” she said. “All of the kids are losing out.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.