Last updated: September 26. 2013 11:00AM - 2302 Views
By - dvanderford@civitasmedia.com

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UNION COUNTY — After a federal investigation of the Union County School District regarding discrimination allegations, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights found no merit to the complaints of discrimination against female athletes.

In December 2012, Jessica Sherbert — who had been told at two prior board meetings she could express grievances in executive session, but not in public — presented a letter to local media, accusing the school district of a Title IX violation in that “an all-girl athletic group has much harsher rules and consequences than that of its male counterparts.” Sherbert also stated that such discrimination falls under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Sherbert’s letter also expressed grievances regarding the way in which cheer leading tryouts were conducted, as well as responses she received from Union County High School Interim Athletic Director Will Hickson. She also complained about Hickson’s treatment of her husband, fellow coach and former Interim Athletic Director Scott Sherbert.

On Apr. 19, 2013, the school district received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in reference to a complaint filed against the district on March 25. The letter stated the complainant alleged the following:

  • The high school treated the complainant’s niece (the student) differently from male students who quit or are dismissed from athletic teams when the student was not allowed to participate in soccer following her dismissal from the cheer leading squad;
  • Female athletes at the high school are denied access to equitable funding;
  • The high school and middle schools do not provide equitable equipment, including uniforms, and supplies for female athletes;
  • The high school and middle schools deny female athletes access to equitable facilities, including the high school’s storage facilities, locker rooms, video rooms, and coaches’ offices; and the middle schools’ practice fields.
  • The high school fails to provide equitable publicity to female athletic teams;
  • The high school fails to provide equitable per diem funding to female athletic teams on travel;
  • The high school does not provide equitable medical and strength training services for female athletes; and
  • The high school and the middle schools discriminate against female athletes in the scheduling of their games and competitions.

District Superintendent Dr. Kristi Woodall said the investigation was a detailed process which began with nine pages of document requests and a four-month period of paperwork submission. Woodall said the district turned over volumes of written records, financial records, and student discipline records. Next, four attorneys from the District of Columbia visited Union to interview principals, coaches and students. They also observed school facilities.

“I was confident they would not find discrimination in the treatment of female athletes in our district,” Woodall said.

On Monday evening, school board chair B.J. McMorris announced that the OCR is in the process of concluding its investigation and has found no merit to the specific discrimination complaint.

“The board is committed to ensuring all students continue to have equal access to academic opportunities,” McMorris said.

McMorris also said OCR visits typically result in the identification of minor operational issues for improvement that should be addressed. When the OCR process has officially concluded, those issues will be public, and that information will be released by the OCR and published in The Union Daily Times.

Woodall said she was relieved at the time frame for the conclusion of the OCR’s findings since neighboring districts’ OCR investigations have lasted for long periods of time — years in some cases — before the districts received feedback. She said the short amount of time most likely means what the OCR found in documents was validated by their interviews and observations, with no discrepancies found.

Woodall said unfortunately, local taxpayers suffered an unnecessary cost from the investigation.

“While I was confident no one discriminated against athletes in our district, I’m sorry taxpayers lost money sent to our district on legal fees when it could have been used on students,” Woodall said. “We are good stewards of taxpayer money and hate to see money lost that should have been spent on students.”

Woodall said when the OCR visits a district, the district must employ legal representation due to information being requested in a format for which the district does not have expertise. She said the district’s OCR bills with its attorney firms — not counting August and September, which will be significant — have already reached up to $30,000.

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