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Parents to file schools grievance Gymnastics cut called unfair


A group of parents is filing a grievance against the Howard County school system, alleging it discriminated against girls when it cut gymnastics as an interscholastic sport.

The parents, whose daughters were on the team, are expected to file the grievance today with the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. "By cutting gymnastics, it cuts out another opportunity for women to compete," said Dale Mennell, the father of two Atholton High School gymnasts.

"For many of the girls, it's the only opportunity to build self-esteem in the school," he said.

The school board had voted to eliminate gymnastics -- as well as golf -- because participation was low and the cost per student was high. About 110 students participated in gymnastics at a cost of about $495 per student -- the highest among high school sports, according to school budget estimates.

Parents complain that male athletes get the better uniforms, practice times, equipment and playing fields.

"It appears that the money toward purchasing, repairing and replacing equipment and uniforms has historically favored male sports," Mr. Mennell said. "Talking with students from other high schools, they've all made the same complaints. The male sports have had priority during inclement weather in gym use. They come inside and they can bump the girls outside."

Males represent 51 percent of Howard County high school students and 58 percent of those involved in athletics. Females are 49 percent of high school students, and 42 percent of athletes. By eliminating gymnastics, the school system will decrease female athletic participation by nearly 2 percent.

School board Chairman Dana Hanna said the school system has worked to provide equity between girls and boys sports. Last year, for example, school officials responded to complaints that parents couldn't attend afternoon girls' basketball games by rescheduling them at night, alternating with boys' games, he said.

The move was done "to provide an even-handed arena, much to the consternation of those who are enthusiastic advocates of boys sports," he said.

"We worked hand in glove with the community to see that sports issues are handled in a gender-neutral fashion," he said.

Don Disney, who coordinates high school sports, said Howard has one of the highest female participation rates and highest number of sports for women in the state. The school system offers field hockey, softball and volleyball, sports in which primarily girls participate, and wrestling and football, activities in which boys predominate. There also are other sports in which both genders participate, but on separate teams: soccer, basketball, lacrosse, track, tennis and cross country.

Associate Superintendent James McGowan said he will ask the schools' legal counsel to look into the allegation. Cutting gymnastics was not intended to create a gender inequity, he said.

"There were very hard decisions that had to be made in terms of the budget," he said.

School officials at Thursday's Board of Education meeting proposed a plan to offer gymnastics as a club-level sport, but parents are unhappy about it. Under the plan, the schools would provide gymnasts with equipment and a practice area at Atholton High School, which school officials say has the only county gymnastics room.

Not counting liability insurance and depending on the number of participants, parents would have to pay $43 to $86 to cover coaches' salaries, according to school figures. Parents would also be responsible for transporting their children to Atholton for practices.

Students could qualify for the National Gymnastics Championships if a private gymnastics club held a competition and they qualified.

But parents say the proposal won't work. They complain that the Atholton gymnastics room is too small for equipment, particularly the vault, which requires a 90-foot runway and a landing area. The room is 42 feet by 42 feet.

They also fear they won't be able to schedule practices because they'll have to compete for gym time with other sports. They say the cost of the proposal is higher than school officials' projection -- they need at least eight coaches for 100 girls, they say.

Sherry Callaway, mother of an Oakland Mills gymnast, suggested the school system reallocate money from other sports to fund gymnastics. "The money is there for all sports," she said.

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