Leveling the playing field
Chico Unified’s sports program is the subject of a federal investigation
Cindy Wolff knows how she is being painted in not-so-hushed whispers—as a spiteful mother with an ax to grind.
And she’s worried. She’s worried the data she’s collected will be overlooked as the focus shifts to her after being outed as the whistleblower in a federal investigation into the Chico Unified School District over a gender-inequity complaint.
“I never wanted my name out there at all,” she insisted, her voice full of angst. “This isn’t about me.”
But, in many respects, it is about Wolff. For years, this has been her crusade.
After her daughter was cut from the Chico High School volleyball team in 2008, Wolff said she questioned why it was necessary to take the roster from 15 players the previous season down to 12 players.
And she said she began looking at other teams, including those at Pleasant Valley High School.
“It was obvious that the district is biased against girls, or at least it appears that way,” said Wolff, a longtime Chico resident who graduated from Pleasant Valley in 1972, the year the landmark educational amendment known as Title IX was enacted. The law prohibits gender discrimination in federally funded educational programs and activities, including sports.
After documenting disparities in the number of roster spots available to boys and girls in the district, Wolff filed a Title IX complaint with the district in 2008. She said she received official responses dismissing the issue.
Wolff said she was considering dropping the issue, when she heard in the spring of 2009 about the American Association of University Women’s national campaign to bring about compliance. Wolff, who is a member of the AAUW’s Chico chapter, then presented her research on Chico Unified’s athletic programs to the group.
She said the Chico chapter of the AAUW’s Title IX Committee submitted the complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights after members worked together to gather more data. What they documented were disparities in participation, facilities, equipment, and the number of players cut from teams.
“Having found serious disparity in access to sports for girls compared to boys and no response from [Chico Unified] administration, the Chico branch had no choice but to file a complaint,” said Wolff, a professor in Chico State’s Nutrition and Food Science Department.
Some of the key numbers cited in their complaint have been refuted by coaches, particularly the number of girls cut from teams.
The Office of Civil Rights received the complaint on Oct. 5, and an investigation is in the works. The agency does not identify who files a complaint, but Wolff said her name became public through a Public Records Request by local media.
Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the Office of Civil Rights, said the federal agency received 96 Title IX complaints last year involving athletic allegations. Bradshaw said that about one-third of complaints are investigated.
Investigators will begin sorting through data Monday (March 28) as they interview administrators, coaches, athletes and others, said Janet Brinson, the director of educational services at Chico Unified, who also serves as the district’s Title IX compliance officer.
Chico Unified officials and several coaches contacted by this reporter adamantly denied any favoritism to boys’ teams.
Brinson said the district is confident that the athletic programs being offered are meeting the needs of all students, both girls and boys.
“Our response is that we are comfortable with our offerings,” she said.
Since receiving notification of the complaint, Brinson said she has been poring over documentation for 22 items requested by the Office of Civil Rights. Among the items the agency asked for were game and practice schedules, how coaches are paid, stipend amounts, and how the district determines the interest of students in particular athletics.
“It’s taken a huge amount of time,” she said. “It’s been pretty labor intensive.”
One of the key aspects of the complaint are the numbers Wolff collected using yearbooks and team rosters to document the participation rates of girls and boys at Chico and Pleasant Valley high schools. Her data for 2007-09 at Pleasant Valley concludes that boys had an average of 207 more team spots per year than girls. During that same time frame at Chico High, boys had about 104 more team spots each year than girls.
The AAUW has recommended the high schools add roster spots for girls by not cutting players. However, several coaches of girls’ teams said they don’t cut and in some cases they have to recruit players so that they can field a team. And in some cases where there have been cuts, the coaches say it comes down to safety.
“It’s called softball, but the ball isn’t soft by any means,” quipped Tony Tallerico, softball coach at Pleasant Valley. “I need to evaluate the kids to see if they can play at this level.” Tallerico said he had 20 players try out for the softball team. Fifteen made the cut.
“We will never make everyone happy … I don’t think they will find anything with this complaint, but it is a complaint and you have to take it seriously,” he said.
Conversely, there are 16 players on the Pleasant Valley baseball team. However, baseball typically requires a larger bullpen, thus more players, because of pitching limitation rules.
“From my standpoint, I don’t see any discrimination,” said Tony Longueira, who coaches both girls’ and boys’ soccer at Chico High.
But that’s what the Office for Civil Rights will decide. If it determines a complaint is valid, it works with the school district to rectify the situation. The district would otherwise risk losing federal funding.
Wolff said she is concerned that her complaint will be seen as an attack on boys’ sports, when her real intentions are to educate people about Title IX and ensure girls in Chico Unified are given a fair shake.
“The goal is not to cut boys’ spots on the team,” she said. “I don’t want them to think I’m out to get them.”