District to address equal opportunity concerns

Derik Vanderford Staff Writer

September 28, 2013

UNION COUNTY — A federal investigation found that the Union County School District failed to provide female athletes with equal opportunities in a number of areas and the district has agreed to address those issues.

On April 19, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation of a complaint alleging the Union County School District treated an individual student differently on the basis of sex and also that the district denied the class of female student athletes equal opportunities with respect to funding (including per diem funding); equipment; supplies; facilities (including locker rooms and practice fields); publicity; medical and strength training services; and scheduling of games and competitions.

A story — headlined “Investigation finds no merit to discrimination claim” — ran in Thursday’s edition of The Union Daily Times. On Friday, The Union Daily Times received the following statement from the U.S. Department of Education OCR in regard to the story:

“OCR conducted an investigation that included an on-site visit of the district’s only high school and all middle schools. OCR found insufficient evidence with respect to the individual allegation of different treatment on the basis of sex, and also found insufficient evidence that the district denied female athletes equitable per diem funding, equipment, supplies, publicity and medical training services.

“However, OCR’s investigation determined that the district failed to provide female athletes equal opportunities with respect to: equitable facilities, including practice and competitive softball fields; strength training facilities and locker rooms; laundering of uniforms; pregame meals; scheduling and number of games; and maintenance of uniforms.

“On Sept. 24, 2013, the district signed a Resolution Agreement to address these Title IX compliance concerns. OCR expects to issue a letter of findings, with accompanying Resolution Agreement, by the end of this week.”

On Friday, the school district released a statement that during the Sept. 23 board meeting, the board discussed the status of the discrimination complaint brought by Jessica Sherbert on behalf of an individual student. At the meeting, the board received legal advice from their attorneys, including that the OCR was in the process of concluding its investigation of the complaint. The board also reviewed a proposed resolution agreement, which addresses several issues regarding equal access to athletic opportunities for all students.

“The board is pleased that OCR found no merit to the specific complaint Ms. Sherbert brought regarding the discrimination of a female student who was removed from the cheerleading team after being arrested in the community,” the district’s statement read. “Ms. Sherbert specifically alleged that a female athlete was disciplined more harshly as a result of her removal from the team than male athletes who engaged in similar conduct. However, after a thorough review of the allegation, OCR determined that there was no discrimination of female athletes in the discipline process. Although the various teams historically have not had uniform discipline sanctions, any differences in outcomes are not discriminatory or related to gender. As an example, students on the boys’ varsity basketball team are removed from the team if they receive even one day of out-of-school suspension or two days of in-school suspension, which is a much tougher policy than that of any other team, male or female.

“As also discussed at the meeting and in the letter of findings, OCR did identify several issues that should be addressed by the district. For example, during the 2012-13 school year, the coaches of nine out of 16 boys teams laundered their players’ uniforms using district equipment, while the coaches of only three out of 15 girls teams laundered their players’ uniforms. Although in the past the decision to launder or not has been left up to each individual coach, in order to ensure that female athletes are not treated unfairly in this area, the district will administer a survey to all sports teams, male and female, in order to determine which teams desire for their coaches to wash their uniforms and will ensure that the coaches adhere to the stated desires of the students.

“As another example, the district currently provides a pre-game meal to the football team, whose members are required to remain on campus after school in order to prepare for the game, such as taping ankles and wrists and receiving physical therapy, before then traveling to the game site, warming up, playing in a three-hour game, and then traveling back to campus. In order to address a concern that female athletes do not receive a pre-game meal, the district will begin providing pre-game meals to any team, male or female, whose players are not allowed to leave campus after school and who will not have completed their athletic participation prior to the evening meal time.

The district also stated that it plans to address other concerns raised by the OCR. These include working with the Town of Lockhart and Union County “to ensure appropriate maintenance of the middle school softball fields, providing dedicated transportation to practice fields for middle school softball players, ensuring that all girls teams have access to and utilize the locker rooms provided for them, and conducting a survey of weight equipment available at the high school and purchasing additional equipment as needed.”

(The district, however, pointed out that, contrary to the OCR’s letter of findings, the high school weight room has 33 five-pound and 33 ten-pound free weights, two sets of three, five, 10 and 15 pound hand weights, and seven medicine balls under fifteen pounds.)

The district also states that administration will work to “increase the number of competitive opportunities for the middle school softball teams as appropriate, though other than scheduling primarily intra-district games, we are not yet certain how to accomplish this goal due to the lack of other middle school softball teams in the area.”

A copy of the Sept. 27 letter of findings and the resolution agreement are available to any member of the public upon request.

“In the resolution agreement, the board and administration have confirmed our commitment to addressing these issues as we move forward to ensure that all students have equal access to athletic opportunities, as we believe has been the case in our schools for many years,” the district stated. “The board and administration are proud of all our athletes and remain dedicated to providing equal and appropriate opportunities for all students in the county. The board and administration will continue to provide the public with information related to all steps taken to address the issues noted by OCR.”