A federal Title IX lawsuit filed by a Gainesville High School mother alleging inequality in the treatment of the school’s softball program has been settled.
After about an hour in executive session Wednesday, the school board approved the settlement and announced plans to make improvements to the high school’s softball facility.
A written statement released after the vote read, “The Gainesville City School System Board of Education and Superintendent are pleased to announce that, as part of the district’s overall capital improvement plan for its schools and facilities, it will be moving forward over the next year to make improvements to the softball field and complex located on the campus of Gainesville High School. GCSS is committed to providing its student athletes with the best facilities possible and to providing equitable facilities for male and female athletes. With this announcement, GCSS has continued on that path and, at the same time, resolved a pending lawsuit. It looks forward to continuing the great tradition of Red Elephant excellence in regional and state competition.”
The settlement brings an end to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the northern district of Georgia in June 2016 by Ginger Folger, the mother of a Gainesville High softball player. In her suit, Folger cited Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in any federally funded education program or activity. The suit also cited the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which calls for equal protection under the law.
The lawsuit alleges the women’s softball athletes were not being treated equally in several areas including: facilities, funding, provision of equipment and supplies, pre-game meals, and assignment and compensation of coaches.
Sam Schiller, a Tennessee attorney who represents Folger and handles only Title IX cases, called problems with the facilities “the driving factor” behind the lawsuit. He listed several concerns with the softball facilities including the fact that the softball complex has no press box, concession stands or restrooms and that the dugouts have only chain-link fencing without “walls that would protect the kids from the weather.”
“There were a number of other things that were addressed in the settlement agreement, but that was the driving factor, yes,” Schiller said of the conditions of the softball complex.
Schiller, who represents clients around country, said he is “selective” in the cases he decides to take.
“This was just one that I thought cried out for some relief and some attention,” he said. “Fortunately, the school board and the new superintendent made the decision to do the right thing. We’re happy with what they’ve done and we congratulate them on doing the right thing and making the improvements.”
Folger was at the meeting and waited outside the board room during the executive session while the board discussed the settlement.
“I’m incredibly pleased with the settlement; there is immense relief,” she said. “I felt that I needed to stand up for what was right for my daughter and to show her that when she sees something that is not right, that she needs to be brave enough to stand up for that as well.”
Gainesville School Superintendent Jeremy Williams said the work on the softball complex will be completed in time for the fall season in 2018. Folger said she is pleased her daughter will get to use the improved complex, but added that she pursued the lawsuit for others as well.
“It was about my daughter, but it was also about all the girls that will come behind her,” she said.
“I appreciate Dr. Williams and the work that he has done to bring this settlement about,” Folger said. “I’m very pleased with the board and their vote that they’re ready with making sure that athletics is treated fairly and that female athletes at Gainesville High School are going to be treated equally from this point forward.”
Williams, who was at his first official meeting as superintendent, said he was made aware of the details of the lawsuit while working with the district in May and June as chief of staff in the transition period before he replaced Wanda Creel as superintendent July 1.
“It was priority for us to make sure we got that settled as quickly as possible because I thought it was something that was going to benefit our student athletes, specifically in this case, our softball athletes,” he said. “We’re pleased to have the issue resolved.
“When you go and drive by the facility, you will notice that it is outdated by quite some time,” he said. “It’s really just making sure that entire facility has an opportunity to help grow our softball program. We’ll be relying heavily on Carroll Daniel Construction to make sure that improvements are as good or better than some of our other opportunities that we have.”
Williams added that the district has other “outdated facilities” that need to be addressed.
“We’re looking at all of our programs whether it’s male, whether it’s female, whether it’s elementary, middle or high school. We’ve got a lot of needs because of the growth we’ve had in the system,” he said. “I hope that over the next few months we’ll be able to take the improvements with the softball complex and put them with other improvements that we need to make so that our SPLOST money is spent wisely and we are able to improve our facilities for all of our students to be successful.”
Williams and Board Chairman Brett Mercer confirmed that the settlement also calls for the school district to pay Folger’s legal fees. Those fees will be paid through the district’s insurance policy.
“It’s always a relief to have any lawsuit settled,” Mercer said. “The softball team moved back to our on-campus location two years ago, maybe three years ago. Improvements had been intended. This just speeds that process up.”
When asked if the issue could have been settled before a lawsuit was filed, Mercer replied, “Had the board had more knowledge about wants and desires, it may never had made it to litigation.”