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Education: Feds investigate gender equity complaint over WHS cheer squads

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The Georgetown County School District is being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education following a complaint from two former volunteers at Waccamaw High who allege that the district did not provide equal opportunity to its cheerleaders.

The complaint was filed in September. The district received notice last week.

The issue grew out of a request from the WHS principal, David Hammel, to consolidate funds from the Cheer Booster Club with the Athletic Booster Club. Foy Ford, a long-time volunteer, was running the cheerleader boosters. Her husband Joe was a volunteer wrestling coach.

Joe Ford said he was told that the district required schools to consolidate booster club accounts. He checked with the district and found there was no such requirement. He said the cheerleaders’ equipment was locked up and the team was denied permission to hold a fundraiser until its booster club funds, about $5,000, were turned over to the Athletic Booster Club.

The Fords filed a complaint with Hammel under Title IX of the 1972 education law that prohibits discrimination by gender. They didn’t get a response, but the equipment closet was unlocked and the fundraiser was approved, Joe Ford said.

When another fundraiser failed to get approval in August, the Fords filed a Title IX complaint with the school district. The fundraiser was approved on the condition that the team’s booster club funds be turned over to the Athletic Booster Club, Joe Ford said. The Fords filed another Title IX complaint.

Along with the complaint about the team’s inability to have its own booster club, the Fords claimed other instances of discrimination:

• the district’s failure to pay the coach, Jennifer Hagaman, a stipend for the competitive cheer team, and the failure to pay a supplement to her cheerleading stipend for post-season games, which other coaches receive;

• lack of equal access to practice facilities. The cheerleaders practice in the cafeteria rather than the gym and are responsible for moving tables and chairs;

• and, after meeting with district staff on Sept. 5, they noted the district did not have a Title IX coordinator or a grievance procedure as required by law.

After the September meeting, Superintendent Randy Dozier wrote the Fords that he had researched their complaints. “I have not found any evidence to support your complaints of gender discrimination,” he told them. On the contrary, the school and district have “worked diligently to provided additional athletic opportunities for WHS female students, such as Competitive Cheer, and also has provided significant financial support to the cheerleading program.”

He also found Hammel’s efforts to consolidate the booster accounts were reasonable and said he supports the concept “to have one account in conjunction with the WHS Athletic Booster Club.” A cheerleader parent was appointed as a representative to the Athletic Booster Club, he added.

He also agreed to pay the cheerleading coach for post-season activities and recommended to the school board that it approve a stipend for competitive cheer. And, the cheerleaders wouldn’t have to move tables in the cafeteria, he said. Custodians would do that. “If needed, Waccamaw High School can arrange use of the gym,” he wrote.

But Dozier also said the WHS Cheer Booster Club bank account needed to be closed within 10 days. “You have been informed that you are not authorized to continue to maintain that bank account using the name Waccamaw High School,” he wrote.

The directive to close the booster club account led to an additional complaint. The Fords told Dozier that the order to close the account was “harassment and intimidation” as a result of their Title IX complaints. In fact, in a reply to Dozier, the Fords said they saw a pattern of intimidation in the district’s response to their complaints, including what they said was a threat from Dozier that “I could have both of you removed from doing any activity with the school.”

The Fords asked for a point-by-point response to their Title IX complaints with the steps the district planned to take to correct the discrimination. The Cheer Booster Club account would remain open until they received a reply, they said.

That led to a response from Andrea White, a lawyer for the school district, saying “we do not believe you have demonstrated WHS has violated Title IX by discriminating on the basis of gender.”

The letter said a Title IX coordinator is now in place (Marthena Grate Morant, the former human resources director) and a grievance procedure would be adopted by the board. “If you still believe that any of your Title IX complaints remain unresolved, you may file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights” at the Department of Education, she wrote.

White only learned last week the complaint had been filed a week after the meeting with the Fords and district staff.

As to threats from Dozier, she said it was Joe Ford who was “loud and aggressive” while Dozier was “calm and professional” in asking Ford to “behave in a civil manner.”

White also said comments posted on the Internet by the Fords about district employees “border on defamation in the form of libel.” She said if “untrue and unfounded” accusations continue, “those officials may seek injunctive relief and monetary damages.”

White told the Fords they cannot maintain a bank account in the name of Waccamaw High School without the district’s permission. “We are left with no reasonable alternative but to pursue recourse through the legal system,” White wrote.

The Fords say that only reinforces their belief that the district is retaliating against them for raising the Title IX issues. They dispute White’s characterization of the September meeting. “The fact that the meeting got ‘loud,’ as you claim, was the direct result of the fact that the school district was unprepared to deal with the claims that we had brought to the table,” they told White in a letter last week.

Dozier said this week that the district is still working to resolve the issue. He said there have been no Title IX complaints to the Office of Civil Rights in his 10 years as superintendent. “We like to resolve those on the local level,” he said.

The Office of Civil Rights told the district an investigator will interview the Waccamaw High principal. “We haven’t got that set up yet,” White said.

That’s not the way the agency typically works, she explained. “Normally, what OCR will do is send out a request for information,” White said.

She said the issue isn’t about gender equity, but about volunteers who don’t want to follow the district’s rules. The cheerleaders weren’t the only team affected by the decision to consolidate booster club accounts, she said. The baseball team also put its funds in the Athletic Booster Club.

“The baseball team squawked about it a little bit,” she said. “The baseball players came around.”

Joe Ford said he would like to take the issue to the school board, but doubted that would happen. The district has grievance policies for students, employees and community members, some of which it is currently updating.

District policy allows the public to petition the board for a grievance hearing, but the policy states “the complaints are referred through the proper administrative channels for resolution before investigation or action by the board.”

White pointed out the Fords can always make their case to the board during the public comment period at its meetings if they don’t get a hearing.

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