Feds probe city schools in bias case * Charge alleges girls are denied sports equality.

February 14, 1991|By Mike Klingaman and Mark Bomster | Mike Klingaman and Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

The federal government has begun an investigation into alleged discrimination against the girls' sports program in Baltimore high schools.

The probe is being conducted by the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education and came to light this week when The Evening Sun obtained a copy of a letter informing the city school superintendent of the investigation.

Federal officials say only that the probe was triggered by a complaint filed by a Baltimore student.

The complaint, filed under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, alleges that city high schools deny female students equal athletic opportunity. It was filed in the wake of an Evening Sun series describing the shortcomings in the girls' sports program.

Federal authorities refuse to name the complainant but say the allegations warrant the inquiry, which should be completed by April.

"All complaints are taken very seriously, and are investigated until the alleged discrimination is either proven or disproven," says Roger Murphy, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington.

At stake is $54.7 million of projected federal aid in the city schools' current budget request for fiscal 1992, a portion of which could be withheld by the government if civil rights violations are found and not corrected. But such drastic measures are rarely taken, Murphy says.

"Typically, if we find that discrimination exists, a corrective action plan is implemented," he says. "Very, very few cases, less than 1 percent, result in the withholding of federal funds."

Federal officials would not comment on the specifics of the complaint. However, The Evening Sun has learned that the inquiry involves alleged disparities in athletic equipment, uniforms and practice times.

"Every complaint is unique," says Murphy. "We will look diligently at all issues. We don't pass judgment on any one of them."

The Evening Sun series on girls' sports was called "High Hurdles" and appeared October 15-17.

In interviews with 40 coaches, athletic directors, teachers and others close to the situation in city public high schools, the newspaper was told that the girls' sports program is struggling on. But it lags behind boys' sports in emphasis and resources and must leap many hurdles erected mostly by increasingly tight school budgets.

In fiscal 1990, the U.S. Department of Education received 3,382 civil rights complaints nationwide, ranging from kindergarten to graduate school.

Only 4 percent of the allegations dealt with sex discrimination. The majority of the complaints, 60 percent, concerned discrimination against the disabled.

Douglas J. Neilson, spokesman for the city school department, acknowledges that school officials have received notice of the complaint and investigation and still are gathering the data requested by the U.S. Department of Education.

He notes that the matter is still at the level of "an inquiry" and that the federal government has taken no action against the city at this point.

But Neilson rejects the claim that the school system denies females equal athletic opportunity.

"I would, first of all, really doubt that we practice any discrimination of any form," he says. "There's none going on that I'm aware of."

Neilson says, however, that the girls in the system apparently do not show the same level of interest in sports as they have in the past.

"Without enough women to participate in these programs, the programs have disappeared -- just as [has happened to] many men's programs as well," says Neilson.

The school department spends $900,000 to $1 million each year on high school sports for both males and females, which includes funding for uniforms, coaches and team transportation.

The department does not receive any federal money for its athletic program, says Neilson. And none of the system's other federal money could be funneled to sports programs.

Federal officials had requested a response from the school department within 15 days of the Dec. 27 letter announcing the investigation.

Neilson cites several reasons for the department's delay in responding.

He notes that the school system "was virtually shut down at the time the letter came in" over the holidays.

Once it was received, the letter was initially assigned to the school system's Human Resources Department, which generally deals with such complaints. Later in January, it was reassigned to Donald V. Williams, the curriculum specialist in charge of physical education and athletics.

The school department has since asked for an extension in compiling the requested information.

Neilson characterizes the information-gathering process as "very extensive and very time-consuming" because it involves data from each of the system's 14 senior high schools.

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