The Real Enforcers of Title IX: Angry Parents

A decade ago, Ginger Folger’s son, John, played high school football in Gainesville, Ga., His hometown, about 50 miles northwest of Atlanta.

“The financial resources of the football team were astounding,” said Folger, who marveled at the collegiate-level facilities, equipment, provided apparel and training services.

Several years later, Folger’s daughter Isabella joined the Gainesville High School softball team. Folger was thunderstruck when she went to the team’s first practice.

“Our softball field was horrible; A girl broke her ankle in one of the many holes in the outfield, “she said. “We didn’t have protective barriers in the front of the dugouts, the foul lines were washed out and the grass was nonexistent in some parts. Meanwhile, the boys’ baseball field had a beautiful press box, fantastic dugouts and a $ 10,000 pitching machine. “

Folger complained to Gainesville school district officials, but when improvements were not made, she did something similar to aggrieved parents throughout the United States for more than 20 years. Spurred by the protection offered by the 1972 legislation known as Title IX, she filed a federal lawsuit that accused the school district of discriminating against girls who played high school softball.

The lawsuit ended with a common resolution: The Gainesville school district adjourned to spend about $ 750,000 on the softball facility, while also paying for Folger’s attorney fees, according to a district spokeswoman.

“We’ve got a new press box, concession stand, dugouts, a completely renovated playing surface, new lighting, new bleachers, new scoreboard, new netting around the facility – basically a brand-new stadium,” said Folger of the 2017 settlement. “And we guarantee that going forward, any facility improvements at the baseball field would be mirrored at the softball field.”

Much discussion about the effects of Title IX, signed June 23, 1972, by President Richard M. Nixon, has focused on inequities in colleges and universities. But the impact of the law over 50 years sprawls even more widely across thousands of high schools and middle schools, demanding grass-roots opportunities for millions of young female athletes. Yet at local schools, enforcing Title IX has come most notably through lawsuits – or the threat of one – driven by students from families.

That has done more than feed the sports pipeline for colleges and universities. Title IX compliance says it’s been empowering and created advocates for women’s sports based on personal experience.

As Sam Schiller, whose one-lawyer Tennessee firm has filed Title IX lawsuits against school districts in more than 30 states and never lost a case, said: “We are now at the point where women who are high school athletes are raising families, And they definitely know their daughters are supposed to have what the men have all along. It’s Title IX 2.0. “

Folger added: “I was never a bra-burning feminist. But I was able to show my daughter that she could stand up for herself and not be treated as anyone lesser or not equal. “

Tracking the number of federal lawsuits related exclusively to sexual discrimination in school athletics – as opposed to Title IX disputes involving discrimination in educational opportunities or sexual harassment – is difficult. But lawsuits aren’t the only way to measure how proactive parents are about using Title IX to preserve their children’s athletic rights.

At the Federal Department of Education, the agency is responsible for enforcing Title IX, a number of complaints related to sex discrimination in athletics from kindergarten to 12th grade. The vast majority of more than 4,000 complaints that were filed by individuals rather than groups.

The push for equal access to sports for boys and girls in high schools comes as overall participation for girls has exploded since the law took hold. In 1971, there were 294,015 girls playing high school sports nationwide, which represented 7 percent of all high school athletes, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. In 2018-19, the last full season that the Federation was able to survey schools because of the coronavirus pandemic, there were more than 3.4 million girls participating in sports, 43 percent of all high school athletes.

There are, however, several impediments to making sure schools comply with the law.

One is knowing that it exists. A March survey by Ipsos and the University of Maryland found that more than 1,000 parents and more than 500 children ages 12 to 17 found that more than half of the parents and about three-fourths of their children had not heard of Title IX.

Another major obstacle is misinformation. At many high schools, for example, the quality of the facilities, training opportunities and even coaching salaries are buttressed by sport-specific booster clubs funded by parents of athletes and local sponsors, who often raise tens of thousands of dollars to support a single. sport. Most often, that kind of money is used to elevate football, boys’ basketball and baseball.

If that funding causes a disparity between what is spent on similar boys ‘and girls’ sports, booster club leaders typically argue that they are outside a private entity’s purview of school district officials – and therefore not obligated to comply with Title IX.

The law, however, holds school districts responsible for the money and other resources funneled toward each team, regardless of the sources. District leaders are obligated to ensure that the athletic experience stays equitable for girls and boys even with independent financing. And that experience goes beyond fields and facilities, encompassing details like staffing, game and practice schedules, and transportation arrangements.

In the end, a large percentage of high schools, perhaps even the majority, remain noncompliant with Title IX regulations, in accordance with the leaders of multiple state high school associations. But gradually, progress has been made, and notably, Title IX clashes have rarely led to elimination of boys’ high school teams to achieve gender equity – a divisive decision that scores of colleges have made for decades.

Schiller handled his first Title IX athletic lawsuit in the mid-1990s, not long after graduating from law school, when such cases were uncommon. Schiller’s practice is now fully dedicated to cases involving sexual discrimination of high school or middle school athletes.

Not one of his hundreds of cases has gone to trial, the soft-spoken Schiller said. And he believes a new breed of school district leaders is more educated about the rights that Title IX protects. He said that for a recent case, he toured a school’s facilities for boys ‘and girls’ teams with a newly hired superintendent, a woman who had been a high school athlete.

After the tour, Schiller told the superintendent, “I know what this is supposed to be, and we’re going to make it the opposite.”

Schiller added, “For whatever reason, it takes federal court to get their attention and make them realize they have to do this.”

Schiller also cautions families to expect pushback, even hostility, in the community when they file lawsuits against school districts.

“Once the news of my lawsuit got out, people started calling me the troublemaker – they thought I was destroying Gainesville athletics,” Folger said. “There are probably people still grumbling about me behind my back.”

Jennifer Sedlacek, who lives in Bennington, Neb., Felt a similar backlash when she and two other families filed a federal lawsuit against their school district against discriminating against their daughters’ teams.

“When the news of the suit got out, it rocked our small town,” said Sedlacek, whose daughter, Taylor, played softball and basketball. “It was divided the town because people thought it was going to impact boys’ sports, which is not true. People would give you this look and they wouldn’t really talk to you anymore. “

Folger said the stigma of being a man who sued the school district over discrepancies in boys ‘and girls’ sports may have kept thousands of parents from across the country filing a Title IX lawsuit. In her case, she couldn’t get another Gainesville family’s softball player to join her as a co-plaintiff.

“They were worried their husbands might have problems at work over the suit or they were apprehensive about people being mad at them,” Folger said. “It was frustrating because I was thinking: What about your daughter? What are you teaching her? You’re worried about what someone is going to say to you and you’re teaching your daughter to be meek and mild? That ‘s the wrong message. “

Sedlacek did have co-plaintiffs. They rallied parents from a variety of girls’ sports at their high school to highlight the numerous discrepancies between how boys’ and girls’ teams were treated. They have criticized unequal access to weight lifting rooms, a lack of athletic trainers and the use of portable toilets without running water on the softball field, a particularly sore subject for the athletes and their parents.

The parents also started a website supporting the lawsuit and organizing a drive to sell T-shirts that they had made that were embossed with Roman numerals IX. Athletes from girls’ teams wore t-shirts to school and a town board meeting. The case drew attention to the local news.

“When you’re in a lawsuit you can’t really say anything, but the girls were out there vocal and trying to educate people,” said Jennifer Sedlacek. “It’s not always easy for them because when you’re an athlete, most of your friends are boys athletes and then the administration is mad at you, too. But I was really proud they persevered. “

The lawsuit against the Bennington schools was filed in February 2021 and settled six months later. Improvements to the girls’ softball field were made quickly. Uniforms for the girls ‘basketball and softball teams were upgraded as were other facilities for multiple girls’ teams. New restrooms were added to the softball field.

“That construction got started really fast, and the field got completely redone; It looks amazing, “Jennifer Sedlacek said.

Taylor Sedlacek, who will play softball at Wichita State next season, attended last year’s Women’s College World Series, the final section of the NCAA Division I softball tournament in Oklahoma City with her mother. The parents of the 14 players in the tournament have been clients of Schiller and his former partner, Ray Yasser, who is retired.

“I thought that was a proud statement – to know that those girls of 14, they did Title IX at work for them,” said Jennifer Sedlacek. “Maybe that’s how those girls got their opportunity to get that far in their careers. It took somebody to stand up for them. “

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