Equity in sports

The Mercer Island School District has hired an independent education equity consultant to review Title IX compliance within its athletic program. Linda Mangle, a consultant with the Equity Education Group, will investigate whether MISD fully adheres to Title IX, a national law that ensures equal opportunity — from team size to athletic facilities — between girls’ and boys’ school sports.

Administrative concern was piqued last year when a few parents questioned the level of equality between the girls’ and boys’ athletic program at Mercer Island High School. Although no formal complaint was filed, administrators met with their attorney to discuss the issue. Both parties agreed that an outside equity consultant should be hired to evaluate the situation. Mangle singed a $15,000 service contract with the district on Sept. 27 and began her review the following week.

“Our evaluation looks at all different aspects of the school’s athletic program — boys and girls. I picture a big scale, with the girls’ program on one side and the boys’ on the other. If we find an imbalance, the district can remedy it in lots of ways,” Mangle said.

On top of the recent concern expressed by parents, Mercer Island is scheduled for a Title IX audit by the state next year. So far, all reviews of the district’s athletic department have been conducted internally. It was due time, administrators decided, to bring in a professional.

“It seemed like a smart time to bring in an outside consultant,” Mangle said. “Legally, the district can do [the audit] themselves, but private compliance reviews tend to be more complete.”

Mangle, who met with concerned Islander parents, would not reveal the context of their discussion. However, she did say that district administrators were taking the matter seriously.

“Title IX is not something a lot of districts take seriously unless parents complain,” the consultant said. “Gary [Plano] has been extremely supportive of the process and really committed to providing an athletic program that serves all students equally.”

Administrative response to Title IX began in May 2006, when a parent raised concern that MIHS girls’ softball facilities were not on par with the boys’. Vice Principal Craig Olson reviewed the matter and developed a plan to move girls’ softball from Homestead field to the higher quality South Mercer Play Fields in 2007.

In November 2006, the School Board held a community forum on district priorities where concern about Title IX compliance was raised by parents. The issue, however, did not make the board’s final five priorities.

Two months later, a few parents pointed out that the MIHS band played at more boys’ basketball games than girls’. Olson again mediated the issue by requiring that the school band appear at an equal number of boys and girls games.

In June 2007, associate superintendent Gary Plano met with three parents to discuss their concerns over Title IX compliance. The following month, Superintendent Cyndy Simms announced that the district had hired an independent auditor — the Equity Education Group — to review its status regarding Title IX compliance.

Every school district is required by law to have a Title IX compliance officer and submit a report to the state every few years. Upon reviewing previous self-evaluations by the district, Mangle determined that the reports, although complete, were not as thorough as the state requires.

“The district has been doing a good job of keeping track of certain information, but not an exhaustive review,” Mangle explained.

Hiring a professional to conduct the review, she added, ensures that all the paperwork is done properly. What’s more, bringing in an objective, outside party “instills confidence in those families concerned,” Mangle pointed out.

Plano echoed this point: “Linda Mangle is helping our coaches and administrators learn how to properly collect this data in the most accurate way. Parents are excited that Linda has all this knowledge of Title IX compliance, and they are thankful that we found her.”

Mangle met with all MIHS coaches last week to discuss audit procedures. Each coach is responsible for completing a thorough inventory of his sport, from the amount of booster club money raised to the quality of practice facilities. Once they have completed the paperwork, Mangle will look over their assertions.

This process and the final report, Plano said, will serve as a model for future evaluations.

To be sure, Mercer Island is not the only school taking extra Title IX measures. Colleges and high schools across the nation have re-examined their athletic programs under the eyes of Title IX.

In 2006, Rutgers, Fresno State and UCLA colleges cut their men’s athletic program in order to tip the scale toward women’s sports. Rutgers canceled six male sports teams in order for its athletic program to meet the female-to-male ratio of 51 and 49 percent. Fresno State eliminated men’s wrestling, and UCLA cut men’s swimming and gymnastics for similar reasons.

And so this federal law, established to prevent sex discrimination in schools, raises a sensitive issue: Just how far should schools go to balance the weight between boys and girls sports? What if fewer girls try out for athletics than boys? Should boys sports be compromised purely for the sake of Title IX?

When it comes to such questions, Mercer Island is a unique case. MIHS has built a reputation for its female athletic program. The plethora of girls sports awards that adorns the gym walls speaks for itself: Girls swimming, tennis and volleyball, among other teams, are some of the best 3A teams in the state. The girls tennis team has won 28 state titles and girls swimming has placed in the top five in state for more than two decades.

Jeff Lowell, who coaches boys and girls swimming, said he is proud to represent a female team with such high athletic caliber.

“I would say that the girls’ program has been treated very fairly. We have gotten everything, and then some, as far as support,” the MIHS coach said. “I feel pretty fortunate coaching the sport that I do, that they’re in the public eye.”

Lowell, for one, feels the audit will go smoothly.

“With my two programs there is little concern. As for other sports, I know that everyone is working to do their part and look through their program thoroughly.”

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