The Bennington High School softball batting cage nets are inferior to the boys’ baseball nets. So are the girls’ uniforms.
The press box for the softball team is a small wooden bench, the bathrooms are portable toilets and the outfield fence is chain-link. The varsity girls basketball teams have to wait to ride the bus with junior varsity players, while the varsity boys players get their own bus.
Those are among more than a dozen claims aired in a federal Title IX lawsuit filed in the past week against the Bennington Public Schools by parents of three girls who play softball or basketball or both at the school. The lawsuit alleges the boys’ programs get more money, attention and accommodations than the girls’, in violation of the 1972 law that requires equitable treatment of girls and boys.
Bennington Superintendent Terry Haack said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit’s merits but asserted that the district has worked to give equal opportunities to all students, regardless of gender. In 2020, voters passed a bond issue that included $712,000 for a two-story softball press box with restrooms and a concession stand. The district has slated construction for 2022.
Haack noted that “the mission of Bennington Public Schools is to provide educational opportunities in a safe, caring environment that will prepare all students to meet the challenges of the future.”
“We put the word ‘all’ in there for meaning,” Haack said. “Certainly ‘all’ means ‘all.’ “
The lawsuit is one in a long line of Title IX complaints, formal and informal, that have been lodged in Nebraska since the landmark 1972 law that requires schools to offer comparable opportunities for girls and boys. In the 1990s, parents of girls in a handful of towns throughout Nebraska sued to force school districts to elevate softball from a club sport to a sanctioned sport.
Since then, most of the Title IX complaints have been handled short of litigation — through petitions to school boards, the Nebraska School Activities Association or letters from attorneys raising the prospect of a Title IX case. An example: An attorney who was the parent of an Omaha Westside softball player sent a letter to school board members after officials unveiled a gleaming new baseball complex on high school grounds in 2007. Meanwhile, the school’s softball team was playing a couple miles away on a city-owned dirt field. Westside officials responded with major upgrades to the softball fields.
In the Bennington case, three sets of parents — Kenneth and Rebecca Lowther, Brian and Angie Scobee and Donald and Jennifer Sedlacek — filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of their daughters, who play softball or basketball or both. Samuel Schiller, a Tennessee-based attorney who is handling the case for the parents, has filed dozens of lawsuits in at least 18 states over unequal treatment of boys and girls.
The lawsuit doesn’t seek monetary damages other than attorneys’ fees. Instead, it seeks to level the playing fields between boys and girls.
The lawsuit focuses on several details in each sport that the girls’ parents allege show the school district doesn’t value girls’ sports as much as boys’.
According to the lawsuit:
BASEBALL vs. SOFTBALL: The baseball program is provided more balls of superior quality than the softball program; more uniforms than the softball program; more safety screens of higher quality and better condition; more coaches and more access to high-quality off-season training; and a mobile batting cage that is not provided to the girls.
PRIME GAME TIMES: The girls’ basketball team gets the non-primetime game slots and must travel by bus to away games with the JV boys’ and girls’ teams. “The Varsity boys, in contrast, are transported later in the day, arriving in time for their game without the requirement of waiting on site, as the Varsity girls are required to do,” the lawsuit says. Schools across the NSAA deal with similar travel schedules, as girls’ varsity games typically start at 5:30 p.m., while boys’ varsity games start at 7:15 p.m.
UNIFORMS: The parents say the boys are provided “more and higher-quality uniforms” than the girls.
FACILITIES: The baseball program has two fields — one for varsity and another field for lower-level teams. Softball has one. And the lawsuit mentions the disparity between the press boxes — the Bennington baseball players have a two-story facility for a press box, concessions and restrooms and a fence with a mesh lining. The disparity presumably will be resolved by construction of the softball press box, though two of the plaintiffs will graduate before that’s constructed.
At a December school board meeting, Daisy Lowther, a junior softball and basketball player, urged board members to speed up improvements on the girls’ side.
“Whether intentional or not ... the district has sent a message about how it treats girls athletics,” Lowther told board members. “Level the playing field for the girls in our district. Don’t let another season of inequity pass.”