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Gender Inequalities Persist In Hawaii High School Sports 6 Years After Locker Room Scandal

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Gender Inequalities Persist In Hawaii High School Sports 6 Years After Locker Room Scandal

Feb 16, 2024 | 9:13 am ET
By Megan Tagami/Civil Beat
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Not all Hawaii campuses have separate athletic locker rooms for female and male students, raising concerns about schools’ compliance with Title IX. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)
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Not all Hawaii campuses have separate athletic locker rooms for female and male students, raising concerns about schools’ compliance with Title IX. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)

After a heavy rain, the dirt runs off the softball field at Konawaena High School on the Big Island. Until construction began on campus last week, the softball team did not have the same press box or batting cage the baseball team enjoyed.

At Waialua High School on Oahu, girls lack a stand-alone locker room to use for after-school sports. Instead, athletes change in the girls’ bathroom after school.

Moanalua High School only has one locker room for student athletes. While the construction of a second locker room is in progress, the boys’ and girls’ teams take turns using the existing facility based on whose sport is in season.

Elsewhere on Oahu, Campbell High School is still waiting for the completion of a new athletic locker room about six years after the state’s most populous school found itself at the center of a statewide reckoning on the lack of gender equity in high school sports.

Civil Beat reported in 2018 that girls on the softball team had to change for practice on bleachers and an off-campus Burger King because they lacked their own facilities.

Later that year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the state Department of Education and the Oahu Interscholastic Association asking for corrections to the disparities on the Ewa Beach campus under the federal anti-discrimination law Title IX.

The DOE has made headway in constructing and updating facilities for female athletes at schools across the state. Campbell High, which has more than 2,800 students, has a new softball field with an attached locker room.

But the state has faced obstacles such as permitting delays, supply chain problems and other issues related to the coronavirus pandemic as well as little progress in training its employees on available protections against sexual assault and harassment under the law.

Athletic Facilities In Flux

Sophia Clark, a four-year member of Campbell’s track and field team who graduated in 2022, recalls constantly rushing between after-school activities in high school. Without an athletic locker room, Clark said, she was often forced to carry her practice clothes, two pairs of running shoes and training gear across campus along with her school backpack.

“When juggling all of these extracurriculars, I didn’t really have that time to be looking for an extra safe space where I could change,” Clark said.

The parties in the ACLU lawsuit reached a settlement last year that mandates a seven-year compliance plan for Campbell High, including regular visits from an independent evaluator who will assess the athletic opportunities and facilities available for the female student athletes. The school must also provide Title IX training on gender equity in sports for its teachers, coaches and students.

The U.S. District Court has scheduled a final hearing on Friday for the settlement, which did not seek monetary damages.

The school has already created an online complaint form for students to report any Title-IX related sports concerns. It’s also made improvements to the softball field, which has new turf and an attached locker room for players.

But it still lacks a stand-alone locker room for all female athletes. The locker room has already been designed and is waiting to go out for bids, said Rep. David Alcos, who represents Ewa Beach.

Campbell is one of at least three high schools in Hawaii that has yet to offer a stand-alone locker room for female athletes. DOE did not provide the number of high schools that still lack stand-alone girls’ locker rooms.

Certain older schools in Hawaii were built with only a boys’ athletic locker room, said Nicole Isa-Iijima, a Title IX specialist with DOE. If schools lack a second locker room for girls, they must allow female athletes to use the boys’ locker room during the winter and spring sports seasons, she added.

In theory, splitting a locker room between boys and girls teams could work, but in practice it’s hard for schools to follow through on enforcing the mixed use of the facilities, said Jongwook “Wookie” Kim, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii.

Kim said he’s seen cases where a school’s football team continues to use the locker room after girls’ winter sports have started. Resentment can also arise if boys believe that girls are taking away space that’s typically been theirs, he added.

“If DOE is committed to complying with Title IX and gender equity, there should be additional facilities,” Kim said.

According to DOE’s 2023 report to the Legislature, 11 schools are undergoing construction to their girls’ locker rooms. The report does not include the ongoing construction of Campbell’s locker room, although DOE’s facilities portal indicates that permits were submitted for the project earlier this month.

At Radford High School, for example, male and female athletes have always had lockers for after-school sports, said athletic director Kelly Sur. But, he added, boys also have access to an extra football locker room at the back of the school’s athletic complex.

Now, the school is expanding its girls’ locker room to offer the same extra space to female athletes. In the meantime, girls are able to use the football locker room outside of the fall season.

“It’s going to be really nice when it’s done,” Sur said, adding that the girls' expanded locker room will have new showers and bathrooms.

Funding Request Denied

DOE requested approximately $13.6 million in funding for its gender equity compliance projects in the 2023-25 fiscal years, but it received no money in the state's biennium budget. The department is now requesting $6.3 million in its 2025 supplemental budget to cover the costs of ongoing projects involving girls' locker rooms. Without the funding, projects will face more construction delays.

Jill Nunokawa, a civil rights specialist at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said DOE needs more oversight when it comes to assessing school athletic facilities. Nunokawa recalled her experiences as a member of DOE’s Gender Equity in Athletics Committee, which was first established in 2001 and reconvened in 2019.

The committee helped schools complete self-assessments of their Title IX compliance and sports facilities every three years, Nunokawa said. After receiving these reports, the committee would advocate for necessary gender equity projects on school campuses. 

But when the committee was disbanded in 2013, schools' regular assessments seemed to stop, Nunokawa said. Although the committee was reestablished in 2019, the team made little progress before the pandemic put an end to their meetings less than a year later.

"These are laws. These are not suggestions," Nunokawa said about Title IX.

Beth Schimmelfennig, director of DOE's civil rights compliance branch, said the department is considering reconvening the committee but does not have a timeline for when it could happen.

Limited Training Available

Title IX covers more than athletics, said Amy Monk, member of the Hawaii Democratic Women's Caucus. The landmark 1972 U.S. law is meant to bring equity between men and women in most facets of education, including protections against sexual assault and harassment.

While Title IX doesn’t mandate that schools provide training on sexual harassment policies, it’s critical to educate students about what protections they have under the law, said Younghee Overly, public policy chair for the American Association of University Women of Hawaii.

A 2022 law provided $350,000 to the DOE to provide Title IX training to teachers and administrators and required the department to report on the number of sexual harassment trainings its employees completed every year.

But over the past two school years, DOE trained a total of 94 administrators on the Big Island and Maui. on sexual harassment policies, according to its 2022 and 2023 reports to the Legislature. No teachers or counselors received training in these years. 

Isa-Iijima said DOE has provided training to schools and complexes by request. But, she added, the department is planning to introduce statewide, online modules on gender-based harassment and Title IX policies next school year.

The department is still deciding if it will be mandatory for teachers to complete the modules, she said.

Ultimately, Overly said, a lack of awareness around the federal law hurts students and parents, who rarely understand how to report instances of sexual assault and harassment. While the DOE reported 51 Title IX complaints last year, Overly said she suspects this number should be higher.

“It is really frustrating, watching this,” Overly said. 

Civil Beat's education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.