For the girls

Professor’s long battle with the CUSD over gender-inequity complaints reaches a resolution

Cindy Wolff

Cindy Wolff


Cindy Wolff didn’t think she would need to take on the entire Chico Unified School District when she set about helping to solve the gender inequities she perceived within the sports programs at Chico’s high schools.

But that’s exactly what ended up happening, as her attempts to inform school leaders—including coaches, principals, school board members, and finally the top administrator, Superintendent Kelly Staley—were either rebuffed or ignored, repeatedly, for more than two years, starting in 2008, she said.

Wolff, an articulate Chico State professor and director of the university’s Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion, eventually got their attention by filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights back in October 2010. In response, just over a year ago, the OCR dispatched investigators to Chico to look into claims that the district’s high school programs are biased in favor of boys, which takes sports opportunities away from girls and violates Title IX, the landmark 1972 educational amendment prohibiting gender discrimination in federally funded educational programs and activities, including sports.

The complaint with the OCR was Wolff’s last recourse, aside from filing a lawsuit against the district. And that’s somewhere she wasn’t willing to go. In fact, one of the reasons she pushed so hard was to ensure that nobody would go there.

“I wanted the district to avoid a lawsuit,” she said Tuesday (June 26) during an interview at the CN&R office.

Based on the OCR’s “letter of findings,” which was released last Friday (June 22), the day before the 40th anniversary of Title IV, the district may very well have been vulnerable to such action.

The letter includes a “Resolution Agreement” signed by Janet Brinson, the district’s director of educational services and Title IV coordinator, outlining the changes CUSD agreed to make to resolve the issues. (The agreement includes a caveat stating that the district makes the agreement “without admitting to any violation of law.”) The document includes two pages of resolutions, several of which address the disparity between the number of boy and girl athletes. For example, Chico High must establish girls’ junior-varsity tennis and soccer teams, and also determine whether there is enough interest by female students to field a badminton team. Pleasant Valley, meanwhile, will form a junior-varsity tennis team.

Those mandates stem from the part of Wolff’s complaint focusing on the stark gap in the participation rates between genders: more than 300 more team spots per year for boys between the two high schools.

Other changes include upgrades to the fields used by the softball teams of both high schools. The facilities currently are vastly inferior compared to the fields used by the boys’ baseball teams, lacking protective covering to shield players during inclement weather, for instance.

Wolff explained the significance of several of the changes, noting that there’s more to the upgrades than meets the eye. The Chico High field, for example, because it is not fenced, is used as a shortcut for Chico State students, and others, interrupting games, and precluding the team from charging a fee to watch games, which further disadvantages them. The site has no scoreboard, seating and lighting, among other amenities found at the boys’ site, Wolff pointed out.

Another significant finding of the investigation was that CUSD’s Title IX coordinator lacked sufficient expertise. According to the report, “[The district] failed to provide the coordinator with the degree of training that was consistent with the scope of her responsibilities.”

Wolff wasn’t surprised at that finding. Prior to submitting the complaint, she had documented nine instances in which she asked the district to identify its Title IX coordinator. “I never got a response,” said Wolff, who only learned who the coordinator was from the OCR during the course of its investigation.

Speaking in Superintendent Kelly Staley’s absence Wednesday morning (June 27), Assistant Superintendent Bob Feaster told the CN&R that Brinson, the Title IX coordinator, will receive formal training and already has learned a lot through the OCR process. “She’s much more up to speed than before this process started,” he said.

Feaster said CUSD has been working with the agency for the better part of a year, working cooperatively to right the issues. He said that Wolff’s complaint about participation rates between genders was valid, but he noted that the bulk of the OCR’s findings stem from the agency’s investigation, not her complaint. The district was found to be compliant in other areas of the complaint, such as coaching assignments and salaries, he pointed out.

He said the district had been working to address participation rates prior to the investigation, and that CUSD is committed to achieving compliance. “We respect and believe in Title IX,” he said.

Wolff said she spent thousands of hours of her time over the past four years, and at times she has been harshly criticized by members of the community, several of whom have labeled her an out-of-towner. That couldn’t be further from the truth; she’s a fifth-generation Chicoan and graduate of PV High. Wolff never intended to become to face behind the effort. Her complaint, which she filed as a member of the local chapter of the American Association of University Women, was supposed to be anonymous. She was inadvertently outed by the OCR during the agency’s investigative phase.

Wolff is glad to see the district resolve the issues, but she appeared ambivalent about the outcome. “I’m happy for the girls, but sad it had to go through this process,” she said.