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  Woman Advocate

The Courage to Speak Out Against Discrimination

By Elizabeth Kristen – August 28, 2012

In the early 1970s in Lincoln, Nebraska, my mother was outspoken about the rights of women and girls. Her views were often unpopular, and one opponent derided her by saying “What do you know about the law? You’re not a lawyer!” She took up the challenge and entered law school. At that time, there were few women in her class. As a student and single parent, she often brought me to campus—so the first time I went to law school, I was six years old.

One summer during law school, my mother took a job in Washington, D.C., with Women’s Lobby, and I went along with her. That summer, Women’s Lobby was focused on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Their lobbying strategy was to line the halls of the Capitol with women and girls to make our existence impossible to ignore. When I returned to Nebraska, I received a flier at school about a basketball team for boys only. I spoke up about my right to play and about Title IX. With my mom’s help, I became the only girl to play on the team.

As a young girl, I benefited from Title IX. When I began my law career at Boalt Hall in 1998, my class was more than 50 percent women. I saw that Title IX had opened doors at professional schools for an entire generation of women. Now I am the director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco. Legal Aid was founded in 1916 and is the oldest nonprofit legal aid organization in the western United States. The Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program is dedicated to promoting gender equity and advancing the rights of low-wage women and families; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals; survivors of domestic and sexual violence; pregnant women; caregivers; military families and veterans; and other underrepresented workers and students.

As a lawyer, I was privileged to represent a class of young women fighting for equality under Title IX in Ollier v. Sweetwater, Case No. 07 CV 0714 L(WMC) (S.D. Cal. 2007). These young women showed tremendous courage in pursuing and ultimately vindicating their rights. They have paved the way for equality for female students at their high schools.

Veronica Ollier, Naudia and Maritza Rangel, and Amanda and Arianna Hernandez were students and athletes in Chula Vista, California, just south of San Diego. In 2006, Naudia and Maritza’s father, Steve, contacted me because he believed that his daughters were being treated unfairly in the athletic programs at Castle Park High School in the Sweetwater Union High School District.

Steve told me that he wanted all his children to be treated fairly regardless of their gender. He tried to advocate on his own with the high school’s athletic director. In response, the director threatened to fire the girls’ beloved softball coach. Unfortunately, the school did fire the coach. When the district refused to negotiate any improvements in conditions for the girls after that, Legal Aid and cocounsel filed a class action lawsuit in federal court in San Diego. On the day we filed the complaint, my clients bravely spoke at a press conference about the importance of fighting for equality for girls. Veronica Ollier said, “The school treats us like we are inferior to the boys. All we want is to play on fields of the same quality and have the same equipment the boys get automatically.”

Arianna Hernandez was 12 years old at the time. Her sister Amanda Hernandez, a sophomore at Castle Park High School, endured public and humiliating questions about the lawsuit from a teacher. A new coach was hostile toward the plaintiffs. Veronica Ollier and Naudia Rangel, seniors at Castle Park, were denied their athletic varsity letters and team banquet.

We sought class certification. When the court certified our case as a class, Ollier v. Sweetwater Union High School District, 251 F.R.D. 564 (S.D. Cal. 2008), these five young women became representatives for all present and future Castle Park female students and potential students who participate, seek to participate, or were deterred from participating in athletics at Castle Park.

After hundreds of hours of discovery, we filed and won a motion for summary judgment on one important Title IX cause of action. We demonstrated that the defendants failed to provide equal participation opportunities for girls at Castle Park. The court found that “defendants are not in compliance with Title IX based on unequal participation opportunities in athletic program[s].” 604 F. Supp. 2d 1264, 1275 (S.D. Cal. 2009).

On another key part of Title IX, requiring equal treatment and benefits for girls who participate in athletics, Judge James M. Lorenz presided over a 10-day bench trial in the fall of 2010. The five brave young women, our class representatives, all testified in court and endured lengthy and contentious cross-examination. Arianna Hernandez, a high school junior at the time of the trial, was on the stand for more than three hours of cross-examination after just five minutes of direct testimony. She stood her ground and answered questions like a champ.

In February 2012, Judge Lorenz ruled entirely in our favor, finding that the defendants violated Title IX by failing to provide equal treatment and benefits. He also found that the defendants retaliated against the class. 2012 WL 424413, at *21 (S.D. Cal., Feb. 9, 2012). During the course of the litigation, Arianna Hernandez stated:

Girls have the same rights as boys, and they should be treated equally. Girls also have pride and respect for themselves, and they don’t want to be treated like they’re not as good as the boys. I, like other girls, want to play on a nice field and have the same quality equipment and facilities like the boys. I hope that this lawsuit will change things at CPHS and ensure that girls are finally treated fairly.

After we won our case, Veronica Ollier said, “I’m very happy with the outcome of this lawsuit. I hope this will mean more athletic opportunities for all students at Castle Park High School, but especially for girls.”

Naudia Rangel remarked:

With this victory, future generations of girls at Castle Park High School will get the same opportunities and treatment as boys at the school. That’s all I wanted from this lawsuit. I just wanted things to be fair. I’m proud that we changed the future for female athletes at Castle Park High School.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX, and yet this law remains dramatically under-enforced. Although we have made progress, we are a long way from equality. As Judge Lorenz stated in our Sweetwater case, “Equal athletic treatment is not a luxury. It is not a luxury to grant equivalent benefits and opportunities to women. It is not a luxury to comply with the law. Equality and justice are not luxuries.” 2012 WL 424413, at *21 (citation omitted).

Courage also is not a luxury. I am fortunate that my clients have the courage to speak up when they experience discrimination. Their bravery makes the world better for all of us.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, Title IX, discrimination, women, courage

Elizabeth Kristen is the director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco, California.

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