Coachable Moments: Johnson says girls sports are too mangled to be worth a lawsuit.
Coachable Moments: Johnson says girls sports are too mangled to be worth a lawsuit. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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How unfair are girls’ sports programs in the D.C. Public Schools? So unfair that it’s not even worth filing a federal complaint about ’em. At least not yet.

That seems to be the considered judgment of the National Women’s Law Center. Last week, the D.C.-based non-profit filed administrative complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against 12 large school districts across the country. The group charges that the offending districts, which include Chicago, Houston, and New York City, are not in compliance with Title IX, the 1972 law requiring federally funded education programs to provide equivalent offerings to boys and girls in, among other things, athletics and other extracurricular activities.

The districts cited aren’t giving girls their fair share. Some examples of the inequality illustrated in the complaints: At Chicago’s Marshall Metropolitan High School, the student body is 47.5 percent female, yet only 6.7 percent of the school’s athletes are girls. And, for the New York City Department of Education to get itself in Title IX compliance based on current enrollment, the district would have to add 17,000 girl athletes.

The complaints were used to launch an NWLC program called Rally for Girls’ Sports: She’ll Win More Than a Game. The group says its campaign is intended “to educate schools, the public and especially parents about the widespread inequality that their daughters face in school sports programs and to mobilize parents to press for change.”

The women’s advocacy organization has been working with scholastic athletics advocates in the District as part of its gender equity campaign. Like anybody aware of the current state of sports here, group officials know things should change. Yet D.C. Public Schools was not targeted in NWLC’s complaint-filing spree.

So why was D.C. spared?

“The sports programs in D.C. schools are so broken, it wouldn’t make sense for [NWLC] to have included us in that now,” says Janice Johnson, who has been involved in the Title IX campaign through a local non-profit called the Sankofa Project.

Johnson, a D.C. native who attended Western High School (formerly located in the Georgetown building that now houses Duke Ellington School of the Arts), says the Sankofa Project surveyed the gender ratios at the athletic programs at all DCPS high schools in 2007. Based on the results released by the group, DCPS could go toe-to-toe with any city named in the NWLC complaints as far as short-changing girls goes.

Based on the Sankofa Project’s survey data, of all DCPS high schools, only Bell Multicultural would meet the Title IX mandate of having an equivalent number of offerings for both genders—and Bell doesn’t have a football team. At Coolidge, which despite all the attention drawn to its female football coach is a very unfriendly place for distaff jocks, a mere 30 percent of the “athletic opportunities” available to students were for girls.

Squeaky wheels get some grease in Title IX matters. The Women’s Law Project, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group, filed a class-action lawsuit against Delaware State University earlier this year after the school eliminated its women’s equestrian team. The suit said that the DSU’s student body in the 2009-2010 school year was 61 percent female, yet only 177 of its 424 athletes, or 41 percent, were women. And in October, the college settled the suit by agreeing to keep equestrian as a varsity sport and to “[c]omply with Title IX participation requirements by providing varsity athletic opportunities for women that are substantially equal to the proportion of full-time female undergraduate students no later than June 30, 2013.”

Johnson, however, supports NWLC’s decision to leave D.C. out of the federal complaint process for now.

“The thinking is, we have to wait until we can at least get some parity [between boys and girls sports] before filing anything against D.C.,” Johnson says. “From everything we already know, there are quite a few lawsuits that [NWLC] could have brought against D.C. schools on Title IX. But we said, let’s work together to try to fix things first.”

Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel for the NWLC, declined to comment specifically on why D.C. was not included in her group’s highly publicized action. Chaudhry says, however, that the group could have named “many more schools” for a lack of Title IX compliance.

“There are many other school districts whose own data shows that they are not providing equal opportunities for girls to play sports,” she says. “We hope that these complaints will serve as a wake-up call for them.”

To that end, on the very day that NWLC was announcing its administrative complaints, Johnson was out sounding the alarm. She went to the Wilson Building to testify, alongside officials from NWLC, in favor of D.C. Bill 18-552, also known as the Title IX Athletic Compliance Act of 2009. It’s a bill she helped draw up, and then swayed D.C. Council Chairman (and now Mayor-elect) Vince Gray and At-Large Councilmember Michael A. Brown to introduce last year.

The measure would require the D.C. mayor to first conduct an independent analysis of all D.C. public and public charter elementary, middle, and high schools regarding their compliance with federal Title IX regulations. Every dollar spent and every practice held by every sports team would be counted to make the gender inequity that everybody knows exists easier to understand.

The bill would also require the mayor to come up with a “five-year strategic plan” to bring the schools into compliance with federal Title IX athletics regulations and to develop criteria to gauge the strategic plan’s success at the end of the five-year period.

At the hearing, the NWLC’s Fatima Goss Graves testified about the various studies showing that youth sports programs provide benefits in the short-term, such as an increase in graduation rates and a reduction in the rate of teen pregnancy, and the long: Depression, diabetes, and even breast cancer are found in lower numbers among those who participated in athletics as youngsters. (Graves’ testimony also referenced a recent Washington City Paper article about the sorry state of girls’ soccer in DCPS, where just four high schools fielded teams last season.)

But Johnson devoted much of her testimony before the D.C. Council to how the lack of girls sports offerings in the city reduces the chance that many kids here will get athletic scholarships to college.

To twist a phrase from the D.C. Lottery: you’ve got to play to win one.

Johnson knows all about that perk: Her daughter, Patrice Johnson, starred for girls basketball teams at every level of DCPS schools. A standout at H.D. Woodson, Patrice parlayed her skills into a free ride at Wake Forest, where she’s now a redshirt sophomore.

Tuition alone at the North Carolina school is $39,544.

“If my daughter can make it from D.C. to Wake Forest,” she says, “there are a lot of other girls out there that can make it, too. We’ve got to give them that chance.”

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