U.S. Department of Education to probe county's decision to cut gymnastics

September 03, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Education will issue a finding within three months on whether the Howard County school system discriminated against girls when it cut gymnastics as an interscholastic sport.

But Superintendent Michael E. Hickey on Tuesday called the complaint "a nuisance suit."

"I don't think there's any basis whatsoever that we are discriminating . . . when gymnastics is a co-ed sport," he said.

The complaint, brought by parents who had daughters on teams, stems from the school board's decision in June to eliminate high school gymnastics and golf to save money. Those sports had the school system's lowest number of participants and the highest costs, according to school figures.

Parents two months ago accused the school system of sex discrimination, saying that the move eliminates the only chance some female students have to play a varsity sport. They filed a complaint with the federal education department's Office of Civil Rights, which last month agreed to investigate the discrimination complaint.

The Office of Civil Rights will decide whether the school system treats male and female athletes equally in scheduling game and practice times, in buying uniforms and equipment, and in providing locker rooms, practice areas and playing fields.

Ted Nixon, the Office of Civil Rights' division director, said the investigation is in the preliminary stages and will be completed no later than December.

The school system falls under Title IX of a federal education law, enforced by the Office of Civil Rights. Title IX prohibits federally funded programs, such as Howard County schools, from sex discrimination.

The civil rights office could force the county to reinstate the gymnastics program if it finds the school system is in violation of the law, and if "we determine this is a possible remedy," Mr. Nixon said.

Parents, however, are afraid the investigation won't be completed in time for gymnastics season, which begins in the spring, and are exploring other actions, said Carol Bradley, mother of a Howard High School gymnast.

So far, a group of parents has contacted the Baltimore branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which received the written complaint earlier this week and is looking into the parents' allegations.

"We are definitely exploring our legal options to see what is available to us," said Ms. Bradley. "It's very unfortunate golf was also cut, and we should be trying to provide as many athletic opportunities as possible for our students."

Parents say they want the situation resolved by December, when school officials hire coaches and assistants for spring sports.

"We just want these girls to get a fair shake," said Dale Mennell, father of two female Atholton High School gymnasts. "I would like this resolved, and I would like to see it reinstated, not at the expense of other sports."

About 110 students participated in gymnastics last year at a cost of about $495 per student, the highest among high school sports, according to school figures. That cost, along with fears of liability, prompted Board of Education members to eliminate the sport at the end of last school year.

Because of the student and parent protests that followed, school officials in the summer worked out what they thought would be a compromise: turning gymnastics into a club sport at Atholton High School, which has the county's only gymnastics room.

But parents were unhappy with the idea, citing the small size of the gym and the potentially high cost of paying for liability insurance and coaches' salaries.

Parents turned in a list of arguments against the proposal and say they are still waiting for a response from school officials.

"We're not going to roll over and play dead," Ms. Bradley said. "We've gone too far."

But Dr. Hickey said there is no more to discuss.

"It's a moot issue, as far as we're concerned," he said. "The sport is discontinued. I don't think the outcome of the investigation will change [the decision] in any way."

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