The uneven playing field
By Jill Nunokawa
History was made, again, by some courageous young ladies from Maui. Three girls, their parents and coach filed the first-ever Title IX lawsuit against the state Department of Education for violations arising from interscholastic athletics on Maui. The Baldwin High School softball players complained that they were forced to play on a small, crude and rock-strewn county ballfield a mile from the school while the Baldwin boys played at an immaculately groomed stadium.
Nearly 38 years ago, Congresswoman Patsy Mink was instrumental in the writing and passage of Title IX, which Congress officially renamed after her passing and in honor of her courage and commitment to equal rights.
Although a mere three weeks passed between the filing of the lawsuit and a settlement, its outcome and the judge's statements highlight the years of struggle and conflict over the implementation and enforcement of basic equal rights and protection under the law, which states:
"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."
In applying this law and the equal protection clause of our Constitution to the Baldwin case, U.S. District Judge David Ezra provided the ruling and language that reinforces and substantiates the work of the courageous pioneers who began this fight for equality under the law decades ago.
His "wake-up call" to the entire state has been long overdue and the filing of the lawsuit triggered the rapid and responsible legal settlement. Judge Ezra poignantly praised the three girls, saying it "took a great deal of courage for them to stand up for what they believed was right."
This praise, ruling and settlement should not be misconstrued, misunderstood or manipulated because it represents the actuality of a collective vision and the effort and sacrifice by many people who failed to reach their potential because they were never afforded the equal opportunity to succeed in academics and athletics in Hawai'i.
It also represents years of perseverance and perspiration trying to educate, motivate and work with DOE personnel and others to ensure compliance with the law.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote a similar commentary headlined, "Law provides equality for men, women athletes, but it's rarely achieved in Island high schools."
It stated, "The glaring void of equity and justice for all at the high school level has escaped the legal forum. In such litigious times, however, continued noncompliance with the gender equity laws by both associations will inevitably lead to legal suits and the filing of complaints."
I used two specific examples: changing the girls' basketball season and providing space for girls' softball fields.
Less than a month later, the statewide association of athletic directors voted against all of the gender equity recommendations. The Hawaii High School Athletic Association received the recommendations and its president stated, "We realize what the law is, as well as what is realistically possible. We are very concerned about working to right what has been neglected for so long. I just don't know how quickly it can be done."
Nothing has happened "quickly" except the timetable in changing the basketball season for immediate compliance with Title IX after the U.S. Supreme Court decision against the Michigan High School Athletic Association in 2007 and this current settlement.
Legal threats have turned into lawsuits because courageous young ladies, their parents and coaches refused to remain silent and accept the status quo. They refused to be intimidated by DOE personnel and others who threatened retaliation and refused to accept DOE's determination of adequacy and fairness.
This confrontation has been brewing for years because girls are blocked from receiving equal opportunities, benefits and treatment. Although there have been large strides in gender equity in athletics within the DOE, that progress has come out of painstaking efforts to overcome backdoor dishonesty and blatant contempt for the law, its spirit and its advocates.
We should celebrate the courage of the three Baldwin girls, as we do Patsy Mink and many other unrecognized heroes, in leading our state toward a more progressive and inclusive civil society.
We should use this as an example of how state, county and community officials and individuals can work together, in a timely fashion, to reach a perfectly appropriate solution. We should ensure compliance with Title IX and our constitutional rights.