Tentative agreement reached in Title IX case
The Lake Oswego School District has reached a tentative agreement in a Title IX lawsuit involving 10 current and former Lake Oswego High School softball players.
School Board members voted 5-0 in favor of key elements of the still-developing settlement at their Monday meeting. The district's attorneys were on hand to hear the vote, as was plaintiff and former LOHS softball player Lauren Working.
Working, a 2016 LOHS graduate who's now attending Texas Christian University, said she is excited about the agreement.
"I'm very proud of what we did as 10 girls, and I think that it was a hard fight, and it took a lot of courage," she said. "It's a huge step in the right direction."
LOSD Superintendent Heather Beck issued a statement Tuesday in which she said the district affirmed its "wholehearted support of the girls' softball program and for all female athletes at Lake Oswego High School."
"The district and Lake Oswego High School are committed to effectively accommodating the athletic interests and abilities of members of both sexes, with respect to the opportunity to participate in the interscholastic athletics program at Lake Oswego High School," Beck said. "We are committed to providing equal opportunity for all students to receive the benefits and services in the interscholastic program."
The federal lawsuit, which was first filed in April 2016, alleged that the girls' softball team has been denied equal access to the kinds of equipment, facilities, funding and fundraising opportunities provided to the boys' baseball team. By doing so, the plaintiffs claimed, the district was in violation of Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972 that prohibits discrimination based on sex "under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."
According to the lawsuit, the girls had to play on an off-campus dirt field with no hitting facility. Meanwhile, the boys used an on-campus field with artificial turf and a hitting facility that the girls were not allowed to use because it also doubled as a locker room. The result, the lawsuit claimed, was that the softball team could not practice hitting on rainy days, and games and practices were frequently canceled because of inferior drainage on the dirt field.
The softball facilities also lacked a bullpen, pitching area, warm-up area, batting cages or a way to separate the field to allow multiple practice stations, the lawsuit said.
"These girls had very strong Title IX claims," said Kim Turner, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, "and we hope that the district simply recognized that there was inequity, and it needed to be resolved."
Lawyers for the district and the plaintiffs reached agreement on major terms in the case on Friday. A final settlement has not been signed, but a statement of commitment to a settlement — including a framework of terms — has been created, and that's what the School Board approved on Monday.
"This is the first step, because we don't want to spend a lot of time and energy fleshing out the agreement until we know the board is in agreement with the statement of principles," said Karen Vickers, one of the attorneys for the district.
But it now seems the softball team will get its hitting facility and an artificial-turf field at Lake Oswego Junior High School, where the team has played its home games. The statement of agreement approved by the board Monday says the turf will be installed in time for the 2017-18 softball season; the hitting facility will be added by the 2018-19 season.
The timeline for approval of the final settlement is uncertain at this time, but discussions are progressing.
"We're very glad the district and high school have come to the table to work with us on a solution to remove gender inequity," said Morgan Jones, a rising senior and member of the girls' softball team at LOHS, "and to demonstrate their commitment to Title IX compliance for the sake of me and my teammates, and all girls of the school who wish to stand on a level playing field."
School Board member Bob Barman said the community is proud that the players stepped up and "taught us a lesson."
"If you're a young lady in any corner of this district, you are going to be treated with equity and justice," Barman said, "and for that, we owe those women (the plaintiffs) a lot of gratitude."
The plaintiffs' attorneys had filed a motion seeking class-action status for the lawsuit in December, which would have added all current and future female students at Lake Oswego High School to the case. On June 29, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman issued an opinion on that motion, recommending that the case be given class-action status.
A federal judge was expected to issue a final ruling within the next few months, but that issue is moot now that a tentative agreement has been reached and the School Board has given its blessing for the district to move forward with a settlement.
"I'm pleased that the first vote I get to make as a board member is about gender equity," said Rob Wagner, who was sworn in as a board member at the Monday meeting.
New School Board member Sara Pocklington agreed.
"I think this is a great day," she said.
In addition to adding a hitting facility and artificial-turf field, the settlement framework calls for additional changes to the softball field in time for the 2018-19 season. Those include adding bullpens for home and visiting teams, a public address system, drinking fountains, power outlets, lights and foul poles. The agreement also calls for facility maintenance, a locked field and more.
"It's been a long time coming, and our girls bravely pursued these changes over the past year for themselves and all girls at the high school," said Kelly Deos, whose daughter, Kelsey Deos, is a rising senior softball player at LOHS. "We will be thrilled to see our daughters on their own turf field next season, and we look forward to future Lake Oswego High girls playing at the new softball complex in the spring of 2019 — a place they can finally feel proud."
The varsity team will have priority use of the facilities, but the agreement stipulates that the district also must now offer a junior varsity softball team. (The program has not had a JV team, although there is an active youth softball program in Lake Oswego that involves hundreds of girls, attorney Andrew Glascock has told The Review previously.)
In addition, the district will institute a no-cut policy for volleyball and soccer, and girls' water polo and lacrosse teams will be added by the beginning of 2017-18 in an effort to ensure that the percentage of girls attending LOHS who are active in sports is comparable to the participation rate of boys. The district also will step up efforts to recruit female athletes to fulfill this requirement.
"There were far more boys participating in sports at the high school in proportion to girls, disproportionate to enrollment," Turner explained.
Another feature of the settlement framework is the payment of $262,500 to cover plaintiffs' attorneys' fees and costs.
Glascock originally filed the case and is working pro bono, which means he isn't charging his clients but is entitled to recoup expenses and collect fees as part of a settlement in civil cases. Glascock later brought on Turner and attorney Elizabeth Kristen, Title IX experts working on the Fair Play for Girls in Sports Project at Legal Aid at Work, a nonprofit law firm in San Francisco that also works cases pro bono.
Glascock said he brought on Kristen and Turner for their knowledge and skills, and he added that he "could not have done this" alone. Turner said one of the key parts of the softball team's case was educating the community.
"A lot of community members and school leaders need to better understand how Title IX works and how to invoke those Title IX rights," Turner told The Review. "Thankfully, Andrew Glascock and this group of girls bravely brought this lawsuit last year."
The district now must hire an equity consultant to oversee and monitor the implementation of the agreement for three years. Among other things, the consultant will be responsible for approving a comprehensive plan created by the district to oversee booster club funding and private donations to the athletic program.
"The policy will ensure that if booster clubs or other outside sources provide benefits and services to athletes of one sex that are greater than the benefits and services provided to the other sex, the district will take action to ensure that the benefits and services are equivalent to both sexes," the statement of commitment to a settlement said.
The budgets for each team will be listed in a quarterly report.
The district also must adhere to a non-retaliation policy specifying that it cannot retaliate against anyone for their participation in a lawsuit on behalf of female athletes. Annual Title IX training for all employees will be instituted, and a Task Force on Gender Equity in Interscholastic Athletics Program will be created within 30 days of the signing of the settlement agreement.
The task force will remain in place for at least three years, with members that include at least one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs; plaintiff's attorney Glascock, a Lake Oswego resident; Michael Musick, the district's Title IX coordinator; and LOHS Athletic Director Brigham Baker. The group will provide input on gender equity, including implementation of the issues outlined in the agreement.
"I see the task force as the community's voice," Glascock said.
The district also must issue quarterly reports to the equity consultant and the plaintiffs about the implementation of the agreement. In addition, the district was required to issue an official statement in support of Title IX, which Beck did on Tuesday.
"Through a systematic process, dovetailing with the long-range facilities master planning process and education specifications work, Lake Oswego's athletic facilities will be assessed across the district to ensure the highest-quality experience for all of our athletes," Beck's statement said. "Since April 2016, when this suit was filed, we have worked diligently to answer the complaint and create an agreement that addresses the immediate needs of the team, while working within a long-term planning process. We appreciate the work of Athletic Director Brigham Baker and Title IX Director Michael Musick to bring this to a successful conclusion for all."