Female athletes in the Pittsburgh Public Schools told Susan Frietsche that they've been given shoddy uniforms and the cold shoulder.
Ms. Frietsche, senior staff attorney with the Women's Law Project, did some research on her own and found what the advocacy group called "pervasive and severe" inequities in girls' athletic opportunities.
Instead of suing the district or filing a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, however, Ms. Frietsche decided to be a good sport and give the school district a chance to make things right.
The school board last month voted to pay up to $10,000 for an audit of the district's compliance with Title IX, the federal law requiring gender equity in athletic programs.
Uniforms are just the tip of the iceberg. Consultant Peg Pennepacker plans to review budgets, athletic promotional materials, diagrams of athletic facilities, team rosters, schedules, coaches' salaries, a list of championship playing sites and other data to see whether boys and girls receive equal treatment.
Among the questions she'll ask: Are the numbers of male and female athletes "substantially proportional" to overall enrollment of boys and girls? Is the district making continuing efforts to expand girls' athletic opportunities? Is there gender equity in quality of equipment and facilities?
Ms. Pennepacker's contract runs through Aug. 30.
Such reviews are relatively uncommon, Ms. Frietsche said, calling the city district's initiative "pretty extraordinary."
Ms. Frietsche said the Women's Law Project in recent years logged a number of complaints from female athletes attending city schools, but she declined to go into detail. She said she also filed a right-to-know request with the district and was disturbed by data that indicated a lack of athletic opportunities for girls at Pittsburgh Peabody High School in East Liberty.
Ms. Frietsche said school board member Heather Arnet, executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania, helped to bring the issue to the board's attention. Ms. Arnet said equality in athletics meshes with Superintendent Mark Roosevelt's "Excellence for All" campaign.
But equity in sports is more than a fairness issue, supporters of the audit said.
The Women's Law Project said female athletes are less likely than other girls to abuse drugs or alcohol, develop eating disorders or have an unplanned pregnancy and more likely to go to college. The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education says female athletes also have lower rates of breast cancer, heart disease and depression.
Ms. Arnet said quality sports programs for girls make for a "dynamic and robust school district."
"We want to make sure our athletic opportunities in the Pittsburgh Public Schools are just as competitive as suburban districts," Ms. Arnet said.
Ms. Pennepacker, a high school basketball player in the 1970s when Title IX took effect, still recalls the initial jolt the law provided. From one year to the next, she said, her team schedule grew from 12 games to 18 or 20 games, including three night dates.
"We knew as a team of young females that something was going on," she said.
However, 35 years after Title IX came to be, many districts still aren't doing right by girls' sports, said Ms. Pennepacker, assistant principal and athletic director at Susquehanna Township High School outside Harrisburg.
Unlike colleges and universities, she noted, school districts aren't required to make reports on Title IX compliance. She said there's legislation pending that would change that.
Ms. Pennepacker has conducted audits for and offered advice to school districts in Pennsylvania and other states. She is a Title IX consultant for the state Athletic Directors Association and a faculty member, specializing in Title IX issues, for the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.
Schools often give financial reasons for flouting the law. But Ms. Pennepacker said there's a growing awareness of the need to comply.
"I don't hear a lot of excuses anymore," she said. "I hear more of: We know we need to do the right thing. We know we need to be in compliance."
Joe Smydo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1548.