With a lei-bedecked statue of Congresswoman Patsy Mink as a backdrop, civil rights attorneys announced Thursday they had filed a lawsuit seeking to end discrimination against female athletes in Hawaii’s public schools.
The class-action suit accuses the Department of Education of shortchanging female athletes by denying them equal facilities and opportunities in sports — and for retaliating against students when they complained.
The federal suit on behalf of two 17-year-old seniors at James Campbell High School rests upon the Title IX law that Mink co-wrote, which requires gender equity in education, including athletics. Mink’s statue was unveiled earlier in the day on what would have been her 91st birthday.
“What we’re asking is for the court to force the Department of Education to obey the law,” said Mateo Caballero, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii. “We are asking really for fairness and dignity.”
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, identifies the plaintiffs only by their initials, A.B. and T.T. They are represented by the ACLU, Legal Aid at Work, and Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett LLP.
The Department of Education and the Oahu Interscholastic Association, the two defendants, declined to comment.
“We have not received nor had a chance to review the lawsuit and are unable to provide information or a comment due to pending litigation,” said Lindsay Chambers, communications director for the Department of Education.
The 67-page lawsuit details disparities in how girls and boys are treated in sports. Male athletes at Campbell High, for example, have their own locker room, where they can “store gear, change, shower, use the bathrooms, hold team meetings and build team spirit,” it said.
“Female athletes must resort to changing in teachers’ closets, in the bathroom of the nearest Burger King, and even on the practice field, risking potential exposure to bystanders,” the suit said. “To go to the bathroom, female athletes must run back to the campus gym … use decrepit porta-potties (which are sometimes locked), or face having to crouch down in the bushes.”
“Perhaps most important, female athletes must carry the burden of knowing their educational institution does not value them as much — that they are, in essence, second-class — just because they are female,” it said.
The girls water polo team at Campbell didn’t get access to a pool until after the season began, so they practiced on land and in the ocean, hampering their success.
“After the plaintiffs complained formally to Campbell’s administrators, the school retaliated by threatening to ‘cancel’ the girls’ water polo program and even withheld funding,” said Joshua Wisch, ACLU executive director.
The suit also alleged that coaching funds have been diverted from girls sports to boys sports, notably football.
Wisch said the ACLU had spent nearly a year trying to get an action plan from the Department of Education without success. The suit noted that DOE was put on notice as early as 1978 that it was deficient in Title IX compliance.
“The female athletes in Hawaii’s schools simply cannot afford to wait any longer,” Wisch said.
The two students are not seeking any monetary damages in the suit, just that the system be improved for current and future students.
“I know so many girls that are passionate and good at what they do but they always get pushed aside,” one plaintiff said in a statement. “There’s also many girls that want to participate in more sports but they decide not to because the school offers us no support.”
ACLU officials said the cost of compliance with the gender-equity law need not be prohibitive. Under the law, girls should have equal access to facilities. So if a school has just one locker room, different teams could rotate through it.
“Start by making sure female and males get to use these facilities equally,” Caballero said. “It won’t cost them much to begin complying with the law, to make sure these girls get the same opportunities.”
The issue is important because participating in sports confers long-lasting benefits on girls, including self-confidence, self-esteem, resilience, teamwork and time management and life skills, according to Jayma Meyer, counsel at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. The vast majority of female CEOs were student athletes, she said.
“We’re focused on Campbell High School, but we’re hopeful that this case has an impact at all high schools in Hawaii,” Meyer said.
When Title IX was passed in 1972, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in sports nationwide, representing just 7.4 percent of all high school athletes. Today there are more than 3 million girls participating, or nearly 43 percent of all high school athletes, according to the suit.
Mink’s bronze statue looks over a seating area in front of the Hawaii State Library and features plaques of her quotes on civil rights, women’s rights and democracy.
“One thing I know is that she never stopped fighting,” said Wisch, who worked briefly for Mink while he was a law student. “And this statue is a good reminder that this fight is not over and her work is not finished.”
Federal class-action lawsuit filed by ACLU against Hawaii Department of Education by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd