Gresham-Barlow Title IX lawsuit seeks to level playing field
The Gresham-Barlow School District is being investigated by the U.S Department of Education Office for Civil Rights for potential violations of Title IX regulations regarding alleged inequities between the district's high school baseball and softball facilities.
Elite Oregon Girls, an organization that highlights girl's high school and youth sports, filed the Title IX complaint to the Department of Education in August 2021 on behalf of the Barlow High School softball team.
The filing came after stories that the organization ran on its website detailing the alleged inequities between softball and baseball at Gresham High School and Barlow High School, with issues ranging from poor field conditions, accessibility and facility equipment differences.
"A Title IX complaint was filed . . . and the Office of Civil Rights launched their investigation," said Gresham-Barlow Superintendent James Hiu said. "Outside of that, we as a school district are cooperating fully with that investigation to the point where we have agreed to an independent audit of our facilities and if the findings (show Title IX violations) we will be working to resolve this matter as soon as possible."
Hiu said the district voluntarily agreed to the third-party audit because it wants to figure out if there are substantial differences to the facilities.
"If there are Title IX inequities then, as a school district, of course we are going to address them as soon as we can," Hiu said. "It is probably work that will be done over the summer and into the fall."
According to Hiu, the original Title IX violation complaint focused primarily on facilities at Barlow High School, but if violations are found at Barlow, then the district will also have to ensure that all facilities are meeting the Title IX requirements.
Local softball coaches don't see a discrepancy between their facilities and baseball's amenities — but that doesn't mean they are content with the situation.
Gresham softball Coach Jim Gardenhire said his high school meets the legal requirements of Title IX — but only in so far as both Gopher softball and baseball are woefully ignored.
"The bottom line is Gresham High School hasn't invested in softball or baseball — or tennis for that matter — in decades," Gardenhire said.
Visitors sometimes struggle to find the Gopher softball stadium. It's tucked away about as far as one can go on campus. According to Gardenhire, the venue is short on storage space, has cramped dugouts, and the headache of foul balls landing on the roof of the neighboring Les Schwab tire store — both an eyesore and headache for the coach.
The field is so out-of-sight, out-of-mind, that Gardenhire is the one who regularly empties the trashcans, because others never make it out that far.
"I've had to do general upkeep for the hitting facility and fields," he said.
Longtime Centennial softball coach Steve Baker echoed many of those sentiments.
"The lawsuit filed regionally certainly has merit, but at Centennial the facilities are basically equal for softball and baseball," Baker said.
He explained many of those recent improvements have come from the "diamond sports" — softball and baseball — staff, families fundraising for their kids' teams, and coaches donating personal funds to improve the facilities.
The main issue for the Eagles is a lack of turf fields, meaning they are hamstrung anytime it rains. For example, Centennial had to shift a scheduled game on Friday, April 15, over to Sandy to take advantage of its turf field with the inclement weather. Those rainy days also force all the spring sports inside for practice, leading to the headache of properly sharing gym time with hundreds of kids.
"Centennial is lagging significantly to most 6A teams throughout the state as we struggle with poor weather," Baker said.
The programs are struggling to recruit student athletes, to the point that the district is dropping into a lower division to have a better chance at remaining competitive.
Across town, in Gresham, the last major investment for the diamond sports was the construction of a shared hitting facility in 2009, which Gardenhire said was fought against by the Operations and Maintenance team.
Gardenhire has been turned down for improvements like spray painting in foul lines, and the school has no set schedule for when the field is mowed. The port-o-potties, the only available restrooms for baseball and softball, weren't delivered until a month into the season, so instead both programs shared one portable restroom paid for by a club team.
"The bottom line is there is a disconnect between what the facilities folks think they do and what is needed to support our student athletes," Gardenhire said. "Given we have a new school, if you compare our baseball and softball facilities (to other sports) it is embarrassing, and they only look as good as they do because of the coaches' efforts."
Gresham High School underwent a much-heralded renovation that was completed last fall, but those improvements have not extended to all corners of the campus. While sports like basketball got a shiny new gym, many others didn't reap in the shared improvements.
For Gardenhire, he has a wish-list that if realized would make significant positive improvements. He mentioned an actual sound system and better branding on the fence and in the outfield that celebrates Gopher softball. He also mentioned then need for a flagpole, because the original was never replaced when a new scoreboard was put up.
"Ideally we would have a redesign of the facility in cloverleaf with actual bathrooms and locker rooms for boys and girls as well as concessions," he said.
As close to equitable as possible
In neighboring Sandy, high school athletic director Garet Luebbert said equity was a major consideration when the Oregon Trail School District built its modern high school campus in 2012.
"Title IX has been around for a long time, but I definitely feel like school districts are more aware of it and working harder to have more equity than even 20 years ago," he said. "That's no different for our school district. When we were putting in the new facilities, that was a big point of emphasis."
Looking west to Gresham, Luebbert said: "I don't want to assume I know situations."
"I look over Barlow and talk to Dan, and the same thing with Gresham and Ty; (their) facilities have been like that for so long," he added. "Change is also tough, and it costs a lot of money. I think a lot of people are just hopeful that they can get things as close to equal as they can."
According to the Sandy High athletics department website, "Sandy High School boasts some of the best high school athletic facilities in the state of Oregon."
The high school facilities consist of two full gyms, two baseball fields, two softball fields, removable fences from softball/baseball to convert to a second soccer field, the main stadium and field (used for football, track, soccer and recreation), and four tennis courts. All of the outdoor fields, such as baseball and softball, are located in the same area of the campus, with equal upkeep and access to ample parking.
"When we redid the facilities, our softball field was in a different location, it was actually on the other side of the grounds, and one of the big questions was 'Do we keep the softball field where it is?' 'What do we do with the track throwing area?'" Luebbert said. "And, of course, equity came into that conversation, to put us in a position to where we have what we have."
Luebbert, then a baseball coach, was actually part of the conversations around how the sports facilities were implemented. Besides those in-depth, equity-minded conversations, Luebbert said he sees maintaining a healthy middle school sports program as also key to making sports accessible and programs well-populated into high school.
"The fact that we invested in sports in our district back in 2007-2008, and we stayed committed to it, when that recession hit — a lot of the Gresham area went away from funding middle school sports — we didn't cut it," Luebbert said. "It's about providing an opportunity. We have a lot of kids that want to come out and participate and be in sports because they have that opportunity at the middle school level."
While Sandy's facilities are maintained as equitably as possible, when asked if turnout for each program affected how they were individually funded, Luebbert said that of course "you're going to have more paid coaches for some programs because they have more participation."
"At the end of the day, it comes down to the student need, but as a school district, you've got to keep in mind that equity, as far as Title IX goes," he added. "So, it's not just a matter of participation numbers. Even (though) our baseball program has four teams, and our softball program has two … that's not the only reason we look at when it comes to spending money."
That said, even when the school receives donations earmarked for a specific program, Luebbert said they still have to look at how to allocate funding equitably. "That's probably the toughest part as a school is to operate within Title IX with that fundraiser piece," he said. "Because you're going to have some sports that are more popular than others, and you're going to have some communities that are going to support, and financially support, some programs better than others."
Luebbert explained that while anyone could walk in and write a check for the baseball program for $20,000, there are rules about how those funds are allocated. "You want to write a $20,000 check, that's fine, but understand that it's not only going to baseball," Luebbert said. "We're going to have to allocate it out to softball and potentially other programs to balance that out."
While others in East County might disagree, Luebbert said he sees that allocation of funds as "common practice," but also said: "No school district is going to be completely equitable down to the penny. It's just not realistic."
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