NEW YORK—The National Women's Law Center filed complaints against 12 school districts Wednesday alleging they failed to offer equal opportunities for female athletes.
NWLC officials say they believe statistics from 2006 indicate the districts violated Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in federally funded education programs. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights will investigate the complaints.
The school districts are Chicago; Clark County, Nev.; Columbus, Ohio; Deer Valley, Ariz.; Henry County, Ga.; Houston; Irvine, Calif.; New York City; Oldham County, Ky.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Wake County, N.C.; and Worcester, Mass.
Determining whether Title IX violations exist is more complicated than looking at raw numbers because the statute can be satisfied in one of three ways: if the percentage of athletes who are girls is about the same as the student body; if the school has continually expanded opportunities for girls; or if the school meets its female students' interest in participating in sports.
Several of the school districts noted that participation numbers didn't necessarily mean that girls lacked the opportunity to play a sport if they chose.
"There are equal opportunities for girls to participate in our school district and it is something that is really important to us," said Irvine's Cassie Parham, assistant superintendent and a former athlete. "The opportunity to be an athlete certainly exists."
In the 12 districts, the percentage of girls playing sports was lower than that of the student body. The gaps ranged from 8 percentage points in New York to 33 in Chicago.
The NWLC found the gap increased in most of the districts from 2004 to '06, indicating that opportunities had not been expanding. It also said the districts didn't field teams in all girls sports sanctioned by their state, suggesting that interest was not being met.
"On the face of it, it looks pretty difficult to say, 'Our students are unique. They're not really interested in playing the sports that other students are playing all around the state,'" NWLC Co-President Marcia Greenberger said on a conference call.
The general counsel for the Oldham County Board of Education, Anne Courtney Coorssen, emphasized the numbers cited are four years old. She said the participation gaps in the district have shrunk since 2006.
"Unfortunately, representatives from the NWLC chose not to contact the district to obtain current data and discuss Title IX compliance prior to filing their complaint," she said.
Wake County spokesman Michael Evans said the district offered all sports sanctioned by North Carolina's sports governing body.
"We leave it up to the schools to determine whether they're going to field a team or not, based on student interest," he said.
The NWLC selected one school in each of the 12 Office for Civil Rights regions based on the 2006 data, the most recent available.
"The numbers are so stark and the gaps are so big, they show they have a lot of explaining to do," NWLC senior counsel Neena Chaudhry said.
The New York City Department of Education noted in a statement that the Public Schools Athletic League has added double dutch, lacrosse and golf in recent years.
Houston's Marmion Dambrino, the district's first female athletic director, said the schools would work closely with the Office for Civil Rights to ensure they were in compliance.
"It's extremely important," Dambrino said. "All of our female athletes need to be provided that opportunity and to my knowledge we're doing that and doing everything we can to afford those opportunities to our female athletes."
A spokeswoman for the Deer Valley Unified School District in north Phoenix said it has been recognized by the state's governing body for advancing girls programs in three of the past six years.
"We feel we've met all their interests, and we've provided equal access to every sport," Sandi Hicks said.
A spokesman for Henry County Schools in suburban Atlanta, Tony Pickett, said: "We are very well aware of the requirements and responsibilities under Title IX and work to ensure full compliance."
Worcester Superintendent Melinda Boone said in a statement to the Telegram & Gazette newspaper that the district "provides female students with equal opportunities to play sports."
The chairman of the College Sports Council, which advocates Title IX reform, expressed concern that a focus on participation levels in high school sports would eventually lead to boys teams being cut.
"If you use proportionality as the measurement for compliance at the high school level, you will inevitably see cuts in boys participation," Eric Pearson said.
In Las Vegas, Clark County Schools spokesman David Roddy said it expected the Education Department to determine how to continue, then contact the district and develop an administrative response. He said he did not know whether the district was in full compliance with Title IX.
"That would be up to the Office of Civil Rights to work with the school district to make that determination," he said.
Roddy also questioned the complaint's numbers, noting it listed the district as having too few high schools.
The complaint said 16 of 31 high schools in the district had gaps of 10 or more percentage points between girls enrolled and sports participation, but a budget for the 2006-2007 school year shows the district had 40 high schools. The district has 49 high schools today.
Officials from Chicago and Columbus said they were waiting to review the complaints.
Officials from Sioux Falls did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Janet Cappiello Blake in Louisville, Ky.; Tom Breen in Raleigh, N.C.; Bob Christie in Phoenix; Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas; Samantha Gross in New York; Errin Haines in Atlanta; Carla K. Johnson in Chicago; Jeannie Nuss in Columbus, Ohio; Wayne Ortman in Sioux Falls, S.D.; Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston; and Amy Taxin in Tustin, Calif., all contributed to this report.