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Friday, March 9, 2012

Fourth-grader teaches city school district a lesson in Civil Rights

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2012 at 3:10 PM

Thanks to a bold fourth-grader's decision to call foul on the Pittsburgh Public Schools for violating federal law, boys and girls who play basketball for elementary school teams in the district are about to wrap up their inaugural season this week. 

On Saturday, the girls from Montessori will take on Colfax in the championship game, while in the boys division, Liberty will play Dilworth. The two championship games, to be held at Tayler Allderdice High School, will mark the end of a season that wouldn't have been if not for the advocacy work of Charlotte Murphy. 

Last winter, as Murphy's girls basketball team (one of just two girls teams in the entire district at the time) was preparing to begin their season at Point Breeze's Linden Elementary School, Murphy noticed that her team's practices were getting cancelled to accommodate games and practices for Linden's boys' team. As if that wasn't maddening enough, the school then cancelled the girls' basketball season before it even started. 

The school's decision didn't seem fair to Murphy. When she vented her frustration to her mom — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ann Belser — the fourth-grader learned a lesson about Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. Under the law, schools must provide equal opportunities for boys and girls in athletics. 

Murphy quickly noticed how the law applied to her situation.

"I said, 'That's a violation of Title IX!'" she recalls.

But Murphy didn't just identify the gender-equity issue — she acted on it.

In January 2011, Murphy wrote a letter to Superintendent Linda Lane, advising the head of the Pittsburgh Public Schools that the district was in violation of Title IX and requesting a meeting to address the situation.

"I am a 4th grader at Linden Elementary school and I have been a member of the girls basketball team for a while now," Murphy's letter begins. "Our season was canceled ... Boys basketball is going fine. This is a violation of federal law, title nine. I would like to request a meeting to discuss this matter. Please call [me] to set it up."

"She accused Lane of violating federal law," says Susan Frietsche, senior staff attorney at the Women's Law Project, who later worked with Murphy and the district to fix the gender-equity issue within the district's elementary schools. "It was kind of hilarious, and quite similar to a letter I might write under those circumstances."

Much to Murphy's surprise — and to the superintendent's credit — Lane responded to the letter. 

"I would very much like to meet with you to discuss these allegations," Lane wrote to Murphy in a letter dated March 2, 2011. "I am impressed that at such an early age, you have taken the initiative to inform yourself of your civil rights and then assert yourself to bring about social justice."

When Lane and Murphy met last May, the two discussed the fourth-grader's concerns. Murphy didn't think the way the district handled the elementary basketball teams was fair, says Lane. "I didn't think it was fair, either."

By the end of their meeting, Lane assured Murphy that the situation would be fixed by the start of the next basketball season. 

This past fall, however, Murphy learned that the solution devised by the elementary schools was to simply create a co-ed league, with boys and girls playing on the same teams. It wasn't exactly the solution she had envisioned. 

"Co-ed leagues are basically boys' leagues with a couple of girls thrown in for good measure," says Murphy. 

Murphy's mom then got in touch with Lane again to inform the superintendent that the new plan fell short of their expectations. Lane agreed that a co-ed league was problematic. "Girls can be put at a disadvantage in co-ed," says Lane.

For the next few months, Murphy, Lane and the Women's Law Project worked to develop a systemic solution to the problem. In December, the district announced that, in order for an elementary school to sponsor a boys basketball team, they also had to sponsor a girls team. 

But, Lane says, "There was a lot of pushback."

Elementary school principals worried that the new rule would cause schools to drop their girls and boys basketball teams, since they doubted enough girls would be interested in playing. 

As it turned out, however, 14 of the district's 16 elementary schools were able to field both boys and girls teams. (At one school, 40 girls showed up for tryouts.)

"I guess we proved them wrong," Murphy says. 

Unfortunately for Murphy, her Linden girls team didn't make the playoffs this season, earning a 2-4 record. Not that it matters, though.

"We had a losing season," she says. "But at least there was a season."

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