Greg Jayne: Title IX brings out the gadflies

Greg Jayne: Commentary

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

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According to Webster, a gadfly is "a person who stimulates or annoys, especially by persistent criticism."

And Herb Dempsey is perfectly fine with that description.

"Oh, hell yeah," the Graham resident said. "Sports Illustrated called me a 'dadfly.' "

After all, the 75-year-old Dempsey has a business card that reads: "Instigator and agitator. Certified problem creator using Title IX and state equity law."

Nice work if you can get it. But few would have the necessary chutzpah.

Dempsey boasts of having made more than 1,000 Title IX discrimination complaints over the years, and one of his latest projects has Vancouver Public Schools officials scrambling.

Not that they are alone. While VPS is working to comply with a public-records request from Dempsey, Evergreen Public Schools officials are busy with their own Title IX concerns.

The two largest districts in the area are dealing with gender-equity issues that point out the need for diligent compliance, but also the opportunity for abuse that is inherent in a noble law.

We'll start with Vancouver.

Dempsey has filed a request for everything but the number of kitchen sinks at VPS schools. He wants enrollment numbers for the past three years disaggregated by gender; and rosters of athletes who were cut from teams; and requisitions and purchase orders for all athletic items; and lists of equipment assigned to programs; and copies of game-day programs; and . . . well, the 13-page letter includes 42 categories of requests.

"It's huge. It will take us hundreds of hours," said Mick Hoffman, athletic director for Vancouver Public Schools. "It's basically everything we're responsible for that could be related to Title IX issues.

"We have not had a specific issue brought to our attention. Like anything else, the process can be abused."

Last year, Vancouver Public Schools underwent a routine audit with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

"She was so impressed she asked if we would be willing to sit down with other school districts and help them work with Title IX issues," Hoffman said.

But that doesn't absolve the district from complying with Dempsey's public-records request, a right that is an important function of a well-oiled democracy.

"I assume the district has the information readily available and it's on a computer," Dempsey said. "I realize it takes time. But there are about five or six budgets that go into any sport and the only way I'm going to get it is to dig in."

At its heart, this isn't about a spitting match between a gadfly and VPS. It's about ensuring that schools provide equitable athletic opportunities for girls. In the Evergreen district, that quest has translated into concern over the number of girls competing in athletics.

A couple years ago, local high schools and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association added bowling as a girls sport in an attempt to better balance participation numbers between the genders. Last month, the Office for Civil Rights determined that the Evergreen district still was not in compliance with Title IX.

"OCR's review . . . indicates that female students continue to be under-represented in proportion to their enrollment at all four district high schools," the letter read.

Other documents indicate that among Evergreen, Heritage, Mountain View, and Union high schools, females accounted for 49 percent of the student body in 2009-10 and 41.4 percent of the athletic participation.

"OCR is unable to determine that the district sufficiently assessed and considered girl's interests and abilities in order to reach a determination that there is no unmet interest," the ruling stated.

The Evergreen district has its own type of gadfly. Mark Rossmiller long has been a critic of district policy and has been involved in Title IX complaints in the past.

But while Dempsey will gladly discuss and defend his positions, Rossmiller will respond to an e-mail request for a contact number by sending you Dempsey's number and indicating it is his own.

Which tends to limit what could be productive conversations about meaningful issues.

For me, as the husband of a coach and the father of a female athlete, Title IX issues are important. It's only fair that girls teams are not automatically saddled with lousy practice times or second-hand uniforms or second-class treatment. If the football team gets a chartered bus for a long road trip, then the volleyball team better get equivalent accommodations for a similar trip.

That is the crux of what Dempsey does, and over the years he has achieved much success in this area. But it's hard to figure why he would require a list of "Presence and/or performance at specific sports competitions by the cheerleaders or drill/dance teams including the dates of the events and the number of such performers involved in sideline support" for every Vancouver school for the past three years.

"It's really an exercise in power and control," Hoffman said.

And sometimes there's a fine line between a gadfly and a bully.

Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. Follow him on Twitter: @col_gjayne