The father of a middle school student has filed a federal lawsuit against the Laurel County Board of Education alleging discrimination because girls, not boys, are allowed to play basketball at more than one grade level.
The boy’s father, Jackie Steele, who is the Laurel commonwealth’s attorney, claims in the lawsuit that the school district is violating the Title IX law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational activity that receives federal assistance. He claims that the district is also violating the U.S. and Kentucky constitutions by denying the boy equal protection under the law on the basis of his gender, said one of his attorneys James Wooton.
Steele told the Herald-Leader that his role as commonwealth’s attorney — the chief state prosecutor in Laurel and Knox counties — had nothing to do with the lawsuit. Steele said he was trying to protect his son’s rights. “It’s not just for my son, it’s for all the kids in the county,” he said.
According to the lawsuit, the boy learned Oct. 5 that he made the sixth-grade team. He wants to try out for and play basketball at more than one grade level, but the district won’t let boys do that even though girls can in the 2018-19 school year.
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At issue is a district rule called, “Play Up, Stay Up.” If the boy is allowed to play on the seventh- or eighth-grade teams, he cannot return to play with the sixth-grade team. Girls can play on multiple teams as “they and their coaches see fit.”
Steele wants the policy changed. He is also seeking damages and attorney fees.
Kentucky High School Athletic Association Commissioner Julian Tackett said in an interview that such rules and decisions are made at the local level.
Steele said in an interview that sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade games are played on the same night, an hour apart, which would allow student-athletes to play at multiple grade levels.
Before filing the lawsuit in U.S. District Court this week, Bill Meader, another attorney who represents Steele, wrote Laurel Superintendent Doug Bennett an Aug. 16 letter asking him to drop the rule or modify the rule so that it applies equally to boys and girls.
Larry Bryson, an attorney who represents Laurel County Schools, said the school district denies that the policy is “a violation of anyone’s civil rights, that its a violation of Title 1X, that its a violation of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act or the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution.” Bryson said he thought the lawsuit was unusual in that “it’s a male student that’s attempting to use Title 1X.”
Wooton said that Title IX is commonly thought of as remedy that is exclusive to females, but it was enacted with the expressed purpose of “eliminating all gender-based discrimination in schools.”
Attached to the lawsuit, was a letter that Bryson wrote to Meader on Aug. 30. It said that the North Laurel Middle School girls’ basketball team “faced a serious issue” when only three eighth-grade girls tried out for the team and one of them moved away.
“We did not want to deprive those girls of the opportunity to participate ... so the levels were reorganized so there are two varsity teams and one junior varsity team. This allowed all of the girls who wanted to play the opportunity to play,” wrote Bryson. He said the district did the same thing with boy’s baseball when there were not enough players at a grade level in the middle school.
Bryson also told Meader: “We are surprised that anyone today would try to ‘game’ a federal law in this manner, although you are not the first to try to do so.”
Steele responded in a Sept. 6 letter, also attached to the lawsuit, in which he said, “I am not ‘gaming’ any laws. I am simply standing up for my child and the constitutional protections guaranteed him under the 14th amendment.” Steele said he was not acting as an attorney but as a father.
Steele is not trying to compel the school board to deny girls the opportunity to play at multiple levels, said Wooton. “He just wants that opportunity for his son and the other male children of the school district.”
“Mr. Steele and I don’t want to hurt anybody, but its very clear to us that this rule ... this play up, stay up rule, is clearly gender-based discrimination on its face ,” Meader told the Herald-Leader. “ Everybody ought to have the same opportunity. Let’s just fix it.”