Hope Olson, center, goes through soccer drills at Sal's Soccer Camp,… (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington…)
An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Wilson High School freshman athlete Helen Malhotra. This version has been corrected.
At Wilson High school, freshman athlete Helen Malhotra spent last fall seeing some girls’ soccer games bumped from the nicer artificial turf fields in favor of boys’ football practice. In the spring, she passed the baseball team playing on a field next to the school as her coach and parents drove heavy softball equipment to a public park and she and her teammates jogged the mile and a half there and back.
“It was so unfair,” she said. “It makes me feel that the world hasn’t changed that much. Even though people say, ‘Oh, sexism is over, women get equal opportunities.’ It’s not true.”
At each of 15 traditional public high schools in the District, girls who want to play sports have fewer opportunities to play than boys and often have lower-quality facilities, fields, uniforms, lockers and coaching.
The disparity in traditional District high schools between the percentage of girls enrolled in school and the girls who participate in sports is not only larger than that of any other public school district in the Washington region, it is wider than many similar urban districts such as Detroit and Boston, federal data show. And the steep gaps in some District schools such as Roosevelt, Ballou and Phelps are far higher than those in a number of schools that the U.S. Education Department has investigated recently for civil rights violations.
On Thursday morning, after several years of unfruitful negotiating, the National Women’s Law Center filed a formal complaint with the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights charging District public schools with violating Title IX, the federal law that outlaws sex discrimination in schools and school sports.
The problem is widespread nationally “but these gaps in the District are really steep,” said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel with the National Women’s Law Center, who has worked on Title IX issues for 15 years. “At Roosevelt, the gap is 26 percent. That’s a huge red flag. ”
The Office of Civil Rights confirmed that it is already investigating another Title IX athletic discrimination complaint against DCPS that was filed in May 2012.
DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said school officials couldn’t comment on the specifics of the complaint but said they looked forward to “correcting the record.”
“Over the past several years, we have pursued an aggressive agenda to help ensure our female student-athletes are able to compete in a variety of athletics,” she said.
The gaps in girls’ sports participation in D.C. high schools range from a low of 5 percent at majority female Banneker to 19 percent at Wilson to 26 percent at both Ballou and Roosevelt, according to 2010 data that the law center obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Nine of the District’s 15 traditional high schools have gaps exceeding 10 percent.
The complaint does not include Ellington, an arts school that does not have a sports program; the city’s alternative schools; or the 40 percent of the system’s students in charter schools, Chaudhry said, because there are no sports equity data available for them.
Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), would not comment on the complaint, but he said Gray has long supported the goals of Title IX and last year appointed Clark Ray to a new “statewide” athletic director position to ensure equity at both traditional and charter schools.
“The district has been working very hard to provide robust athletic programs to all children who are interested in participating,” Ribeiro said.
Thursday’s Title IX complaint joins a growing number filed in recent years. From 2009 to 2011, the Office of Civil Rights initiated 17 investigations and received more than 900 complaints, the majority about disparities in sports.
Research has found that girls’ participation in sports not only boosts academic achievement, test scores, self-esteem, leadership skills and future workforce participation, but it reduces risky behavior and rates of obesity and teen pregnancy. Excelling at sports can open doors to college scholarships.
Studies by the Women’s Sports Foundation have also shown that girls of color are more likely to play sports through their schools. Seventy-eight percent of the girls in DCPS high schools are African American and 15 percent are Hispanic.
“People say, ‘There are so many challenges for the schools or the District already, why this?’ And that’s why,” Chaudhry said. “It matters for these girls.’’