Title IX report findings disputed by school officials

Mercer Island High School Athletic Director Craig Olson presented the School Board with a memorandum clarifying a number of misunderstandings and “incorrect facts” in the district’s interim Title IX report. The review was conducted by Linda Mangle, an outside consultant with the Equity Education Group hired by the school district in September.

Mangle presented the interim report to the School Board during its Nov. 29 meeting, pointing out inadequacies in the girls softball, volleyball and lacrosse facilities, among other observations. She emphasized that the report was not yet official, and that she would readily change any data if necessary. Olson was not present at the meeting.

Although Mangle did not find many inadequacies between girls and boys athletics, she did point out some startling shortcomings with the girls softball team: unsafe equipment, a broken batting machine, improper balls, and a poorly kept playing field.

The interim report also highlighted the fact that the girls lacrosse field was not “stitched” with lines for regulation play, that the gym basketball hoops obstruct girls volleyball games and that fewer girls teams are provided with proper safety gear.

During last week’s School Board meeting, however, Olson addressed nearly every one of these areas, pointing out that many of the observations were misconstrued. His memorandum was received with a mixture of relief and gratitude and followed by unanimous praise from the School Board, who thanked him from distinguishing “fact from fiction.”

“Thank you. You answered a number of concerns I had — especially on safety issues. If our [softball] equipment wasn’t adequate they wouldn’t have been allowed to play,” said board member John DeVleming, in response to Olson’s comment that the girls’ softball helmets were not “damaged” as Mangle had indicated.

When asked if she was aware of Olson’s memorandum, Mangle said she had heard nothing of it and was upset that he had not sent her a copy of the document.

“I am working for them, so I’m not going to get into a point, counterpoint with them,” Mangle said, emphasizing the fact that her review was an interim report and therefore still open to alteration. “The district asked for an interim report. I made it pretty clear with them that things could change through the interviews, that we hadn’t completed everything.”

The consultant added that, if Olson had been at the Nov. 29 school board meeting where she presented her findings, perhaps some of these misunderstandings could have been cleared up.

“The main point is that all of this information came from district staff, so some of it just may be lack of communication,” Mangle said. “It is an interim report, so if there are some inaccuracies, great. There is plenty of time to fix it before the final report.”

In his memorandum, Olson pointed out that the softball safety equipment — the most alarming disparity in Mangle’s review — is, indeed, legal with the required NOCSAE seal of safety. New requirements for full face-masks are currently being met, he added.

In her interim report, Mangle said the girls softball team “was provided softball helmets some time ago and, at this point most of them are damaged and do not satisfy basic safety needs.”

Mangle also said that the girls lacked a proper playing field, dugout and batting machine. Olson addressed each of these points in his memorandum, agreeing that all areas needed improvement.

“The softball team is the only sport which indicated that the team is denied an equal opportunity because of the insufficient quality and quantities of regulation equipment,” he said.

The associate principal went on to explain the reason behind this inequity.

“This program has suffered because of significant issue with coaching turnover ... equipment was not inventoried and simply returned to storage, and ordering new equipment and uniforms was incomplete,” Olson said.

Other “misunderstandings” that Olson highlighted in Mangle’s report include her observation that the girls volleyball facility “is not suitably equipped for regulation volleyball” due to low-hanging basketball hoops. Olson countered that the gym is suitable, though sometimes the hoops are not properly retracted. The painted lines marking the girls lacrosse field — instead of the boys’ stitched in lines — were intentional, based on a consultant’s opinion that the stitches would be “too busy” for the field.

As for inequity between boys and girls uniforms and personal gear, Olson reiterated that “both teams mentioned, both girls’ basketball and football, have had money to purchase new uniforms and additional uniforms.”

Despite Olson’s somewhat alleviating memorandum, Mangle’s major Title IX concern — the disparity between boys baseball and girls softball facilities — still stands, and the School Board has already begun plans to improve the situation. Problems with the equal distribution of booster club funds were also undeniable, and Olson said he would “communicate very clearly with booster clubs and head coaches that all uniforms, equipment and supplies will be ordered using the purchasing guidelines of the school district.”

Mangle will present a final athletic equity report to the School Board in February. Meanwhile, administrators and coaches are discussing a number of potential Title IX remedies for the school.

Mangle reminded that in any thorough Title IX audit, circumstances of inequity come up, and that Mercer Island is, nevertheless, a strong example for other districts to follow.

“I can’t imagine a district in the country undergoing such a detailed investigation and not finding these problems,” Mangle said. “Mercer Island is clearly running a program focused on equity. Nobody can have a perfect review.”

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