Judge rules Ky. school district policy discriminatory against boy basketball players

What is Title IX, and how has it evolved in American schools over the years?

Title IX was signed into law in 1972 and was initially aimed to address gender inequality in sports. Here's how the law got started, and how it expanded over the years.
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Title IX was signed into law in 1972 and was initially aimed to address gender inequality in sports. Here's how the law got started, and how it expanded over the years.

A federal judge has ruled that Laurel County Schools officials have to eliminate or change a policy that gives advantage to middle school girl basketball players over boys.

Last month, the father of a male middle school student filed a federal lawsuit against the Laurel County Board of Education alleging discrimination because girls, not boys, were allowed to play basketball at more than one grade level.

The boy’s father, Jackie Steele, who is the Laurel commonwealth’s attorney, claimed in the lawsuit that the school district was violating Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational activity that receives federal assistance.

He claimed that the district was also violating the U.S. and Kentucky constitutions by denying the boy equal protection under the law on the basis of his gender.

According to the lawsuit, the boy learned Oct. 5 that he made the sixth-grade team. He wanted to try out for and play basketball at more than one grade level, but the district wouldn’t let boys do that, even though girls could in the 2018-19 school year.

The issue was 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,” the lawsuit claimed.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell said in an order that the school board shall either abolish the Play Up, Stay Up rule or revise any exemption to the rule in a manner that does not discriminate on account of gender or in a manner that complies with laws such as Title IX.

“We were surprised by the judge’s order, but we respect the judge’s order and the judge very much,” Larry Bryson, an attorney who represents Laurel County Schools, said Saturday morning. He said the school board would discuss the order in closed session Monday.

“I’m sure the board will want to consider how we can continue to allow as many students to participate in sports as we can,” he said.

Bryson previously said in October that the school district denied that the policy is “a violation of anyone’s civil rights, that it’s a violation of Title IX, that it’s a violation of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act or the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution.”

In explaining why girls were given an exemption, he 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,” Bryson wrote in a letter attached to the lawsuit. He had 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.

In her order, Caldwell addressed the school board’s efforts not to deprive the girls an opportunity to play.

“While the Court recognizes the legitimacy of the (school board’s) proffered governmental interest — compliance with Title IX — it finds that the methods employed to achieve that interest fall short of constitutional muster,” she wrote.

Steele previously said 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.

On Saturday, Steele told the Herald-Leader, “The order speaks for itself. The (Play Up, Stay Up) rule as it’s read and applied is unconstitutional. I’m glad we were able to stand up for the kids in the community.”