The Real Enforcers of Title IX: Angry Parents

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

“The football team’s finances were amazing,” said Folger, who was amazed at the university’s facilities, equipment, provision of clothing and coaching services.

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

“The softball court was awful; a girl broke her ankle and got stuck in one of the many holes on the court,” she said. “We had no protective barriers in front of the dugout, the rotten lines were washed away and the grass was not there in some parts. Meanwhile, the boys’ baseball field had a nice press box, a cool bunker and a $10,000 throwing machine.”

Folger complained to Gainesville school district officials, but when improvements were not made, she did something that many aggrieved parents across the United States had been doing for more than 20 years. Prompted by the protections afforded by a 1972 law known as Title IX, she filed a federal lawsuit accusing the school district of discriminating against girls who played softball in high school.

The lawsuit ended with a joint solution: The Gainesville school district was settled by spending about $750,000 to modernize the softball facility, with Folger’s attorneys paid, according to a district spokeswoman.

“We got a new press box, concession stand, dugout, completely renovated playing surface, new lighting, new stands, new scoreboard and new nets around the facility — basically a completely new stadium,” Folger said of the 2017 settlement. “And we had a guarantee that from now on, any improvements to the facilities on the baseball field would be reflected in the softball field.”

Much of the discussion about the effects of Title IX, signed on June 23, 1972, by President Richard Nixon, has focused on inequality in colleges and universities. But the law’s 50-year impact extends more broadly across thousands of high schools and middle schools, and demands popular opportunities for millions of young female athletes. However, in local schools, the enforcement of Law IX has come most notably through lawsuits – or threats from students’ families.

It has done more than just feed the athletic pipeline to colleges and universities. Those in the trenches of the fight to comply with Law IX say he was empowering and creating advocates for women’s sports based on personal experience.

As Sam Schiller, whose one-law firm in Tennessee has filed IX lawsuits against school districts in more than 30 states and has not lost a case, “We are now at the point where women who were high school athletes are raising families, and they are They definitely know that their girls are supposed to get what guys have had all along. It’s the ninth title 2.0.”

Folger added, “I’ve never been a bra-burning feminist. But I’ve been able to show my daughter that she can stand up for herself and not treat her as a person less or no equal.”

It’s hard to track how many federal lawsuits relate exclusively to sexism in school athletics—unlike Title IX disputes that discriminate in educational opportunity or sexual harassment. But lawsuits aren’t the only way to gauge how proactive parents are in using Law Nine to preserve their children’s sporting rights.

In the federal Department of Education, the agency responsible for enforcing Title IX, the number of complaints about sex discrimination in K-12 athletics has outpaced those related to colleges by 40 to one since January 2021, according to a Department of Education spokesperson. The vast majority of the more than 4,000 complaints in that period were made by individuals, not groups.

The pressure for equal access to sports for boys and girls in secondary schools comes as the participation of girls in general has exploded since the law was established. In 1971, there were 294,015 girls playing sports in secondary schools nationwide, which represented 7 percent of all high school athletes, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. In 2018-2019, the last full season in which the federation was able to survey schools due to the coronavirus pandemic, there were more than 3.4 million girls participating in sports, 43 percent of all high school athletes.

However, there are many barriers to making sure that schools comply with the law.

One knows it exists. A March survey by Ipsos and the University of Maryland of more than 1,000 parents and more than 500 children ages 12 to 17 found that more than half of parents and nearly three-quarters of children had not heard of Article 9.

Another major hurdle is misinformation. In many high schools, for example, the quality of facilities, training opportunities and even coaching stipends are supported by sports-specific booster clubs funded by the athletes’ parents and local sponsors, who often raise tens of thousands of dollars to support one person. sports. Most often, this type of money is used to raise the level of football, boys’ basketball and baseball.

If this funding causes a disparity between what is being spent on similar boys’ and girls’ sports, leaders of booster clubs usually argue that they are a private entity outside the purview of school district officials—and therefore are not obligated to comply with Section IX.

However, the law holds education departments responsible for the money and other resources that are directed toward each team, regardless of the sources. County leaders are committed to ensuring that the sporting experience remains fair for girls and boys, even with independent funding. This experience extends beyond areas and facilities, and includes such details as staffing, game and practice schedules, and transportation arrangements.

In the end, a large percentage of high schools, and perhaps a majority, are still not in compliance with Title IX regulations, according to leaders of several state high school associations. But progress was made incrementally, and in particular, Title IX clashes rarely eliminated boys’ high school teams to help achieve gender equality — a divisive decision made by dozens of colleges over the decades.

Schiller handled his first Law IX sports lawsuit in the mid-1990s, not long after he graduated from law school, when such cases were uncommon. Schiller’s practice is now entirely devoted to cases involving sex discrimination against high school or middle school athletes.

Speaking kindly, Schiller said none of the hundreds of cases he has brought have been brought to trial. He believes that a new generation of school district leaders are more educated about the rights protected by Act IX. In connection with a recent case, he said, he toured the school’s facilities for the boys’ and girls’ teams with a newly appointed supervisor, a woman who was a high school athlete.

After the tour, Schiller said his supervisor told him, “I know what this is supposed to be, and we’re going to work toward that equivalent.”

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

Schiller also warns families to expect opposition, and even hostility, in the community when they file lawsuits against school districts.

“As soon as news of my lawsuit came, people started calling me a troublemaker — they thought I was destroying athletics in Gainesville,” Folger said. “Maybe there are still people complaining about me behind my back.”

Jennifer Sedlasik, who lives in Bennington, Nebraska, felt a similar backlash when she and two other families in her community filed a federal lawsuit against their school district for discrimination against their girls’ teams.

“When news of the suit came out, our small town rocked,” said Sedlacek, whose daughter, Taylor, played softball and basketball. “You divided the city because people thought it would affect boys’ sports, which is not true. People will give you that look and won’t talk to you anymore.”

Folger said the stigma of being the person in the community that sued the school district over inconsistencies in boys’ and girls’ sports has kept thousands of parents across the country from suing under Title IX. In her case, she was unable to get another family of Gainesville softball players to join her call as a co-plaintiff.

“They were worried that their husbands might have problems at work because of the suit or they were afraid people would get angry at them,” Folger said. “You frustrated me because I was thinking: What about your daughter? What are you teaching her? Are you worried about what someone is going to say to you as you teach your daughter to be meek and temperate? That is the wrong message.”

Sedlacek had co-prosecutors. They mobilized parents from a variety of sports for girls in their high school to highlight the many contradictions between how boys and girls teams are treated. They criticized unequal access to weightlifting rooms, the lack of athletic trainers and the use of portable toilets without running water on the softball court, a particularly distressing topic for athletes and their parents.

The parents also started a website to support the lawsuit and campaigned to sell their T-shirts that were engraved with Roman numerals IX. Athletes from the girls’ teams wore the T-shirts to school and city council meetings. The case drew attention in local news.

“When you’re in a lawsuit, you can’t really say anything, but the girls were talking really loud and trying to educate people,” Jennifer Sedlasik said. “It wasn’t always easy for them because when you are an athlete, most of your friends are boy athletes, and then the management is mad at you too. But I was really proud that they persevered.”

The lawsuit against Bennington Schools was filed in February 2021 and settled six months later. Improvements to the girls’ softball court were made quickly. The uniforms for the girls’ basketball and softball teams have been upgraded as well as other amenities for the multiple girls’ teams. New restrooms have been added to the softball court.

“This construction started very quickly, and the field was completely reconstructed; it looks great,” Jennifer Sedlasek said.

Taylor Sedlasik, who will play Wichita State softball next season, attended last year’s Women’s College World Championships, the final segment of the NCAA Division I softball tournament, in Oklahoma City with her mom. The parents of the 14 players in the tournament were Schiller’s clients and former partner Ray Yasser, who is retired.

“I thought that was a proud statement — to know that 14 of these girls, they have the right to Title IX to work for them,” Jennifer Sedlasek said. “Maybe this is how these girls got their chance to get this far in their careers. It took someone to defend them.”

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