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High school gymnasts, coach want answers from Lawrence school district about program’s future

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Lawrence High freshman Adriel Lamer could envision her future when the gymnastics season started last fall. She dreamed about a college career in the sport she fell in love with when a movie about Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas in 2014 inspired her to start private lessons.

“I’ve been looking at colleges that have the opportunity to have a gymnastic scholarship or compete in college gymnastics. And I don’t know,” the teen said, revealing a grin, “Yale sounds kind of nice.”

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But since December, whether the sport would continue during the 2022-23 school year in the Lawrence school district has remained uncertain. Even before the district dived deep into the process of ultimately cutting $6.41 million from next year’s budget, gymnastics’ future sat in jeopardy. The district said in December it had intended to communicate before the fall season a plan to end the program but failed to do so until after the season’s end.

Students protested. Athletes, parents and coaches spoke at board meetings. They wrote letters, too, and started an online petition.

During budget discussions in March, some school board members indicated they would not support elimination of the sport. They asked district administrators to remove the $10,332 proposal to fund three coaches’ salaries from its list of prioritized budget cuts.

That move led some to infer the program was safe; however, whether the sport has truly been saved remains unclear.

The district awaits an ongoing evaluation to determine whether removing girls’ gymnastics would create an inequity. In education or activities where federal funds are received, schools must comply with Title IX — a civil rights law that prevents discrimination based on sex, including pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity.

At the board’s budget work session March 22, Superintendent Anthony Lewis said an attorney continued to evaluate the district’s adherence to Title IX requirements based on spring athletics participation numbers and would proceed with a three-prong legal test. Lewis told the board he would “highly recommend” and “wouldn’t want to make a decision until we have the results of that …”

An article by Lee Green, an attorney and professor emeritus at Baker University, explains the three-prong test, which a school has to meet in any one of three ways. 

In short, the first prong of the 1972 law requires proof that the number of females in a sport, for example, is proportional to the school’s female enrollment. If a school can prove they’ve provided expanded athletic opportunities for females or at least met their interests, they might prove their compliance via the second or third prong.

The district has not yet received evaluation results from attorney Greg Goheen of MVP Law, district spokesperson Julie Boyle said via email on Friday.

“The board deferred further discussion of the gymnastics program until after it has reviewed this report. The district had hoped to have received the report by now but has not. We appreciate the patience of those involved as we wait for this information.”

Goheen did not return a phone message seeking comment as of publication time.

Waiting ‘in limbo’

Lawrence High varsity gymnast Ivori Jones awaits answers. The sophomore’s mulling the idea of attending an out-of-state gymnastics camp this summer.

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Ivori’s mom, Hillary Jones, feels frustrated. She said Ivori didn’t want to make a commitment about summer camp without knowing whether she could participate in gymnastics her junior year.

After she sought answers from school board members but received no solid answers, Hillary said she didn’t know how to respond to Ivori’s questions.

Mac Moore / Contributed Photo Lawrence High sophomore, gymnast Ivori Jones

“I keep telling Ivori she has to do what she loves, regardless if they remove the program or not and what an opportunity to experience at this camp,” Hillary said. “I shared with her she needs to focus on her future for the long haul and potential opportunities.”

The feelings of frustration have piled up for the Lamer family, too, more than four months since Coach Kat Farrow informed them of the district’s proposal to nix the program.

Adriel’s mom, Nicole Lamer, said the family was willing to pay a higher activity fee than the current $50 and help more with fundraising if it meant Adriel could continue in the sport she loves.

Nicole said she had found a silver lining, though.

“Supporters for the gymnastics girls have been their peers. The protests. The boys at Free State were wearing leotards asking, ‘Does it make a difference if I wear a leotard?’ They have been backing their classmates this whole time. I feel like they’ve been the biggest supporters outside of the families.”

While other fall activities conduct parent meetings and orientations, the combined LHS and Free State High School gymnastics team – the Firelions – hadn’t finalized its plans. Adriel said she didn’t know how to proceed with her summer schedule, including conditioning.

“It’s cruel to make these girls who are really invested in this wait in limbo,” Nicole said.

Boyle said high school athletic departments had “invited all coaches, including the gymnastics coach, to submit their summer conditioning plans.”

But, Farrow said, not knowing the program’s future made planning camps and conditioning difficult. She said she wanted to conduct spring showcases where the team could visit the district’s middle schools.

“A lot of times people are like, ‘I would have done gymnastics, but I didn’t know we had a team,’” Farrow said. “But again, I can’t plan anything, because I have no information – everything has been put on hold. That severely hinders and impacts our upcoming season, should we have one. And I really think that’s an extremely, extremely unfair side effect, unfortunately.”

Why wrestling?

Gymnastics families and Farrow have made a point of not intending to pit one sport against another or students against their own peers. They’ve questioned the district’s process, though, and asked why it would add girls wrestling but take away gymnastics.

Boyle said the district’s recommendation to discontinue gymnastics was unrelated to wrestling, but she offered some background information.

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“The district began offering girls’ wrestling after KSHSAA (Kansas State High School Activities Association) sanctioned it. In previous years, girls and boys competed with each other in wrestling, except for postseason competition, which was not sanctioned. With an increase in girls participating in wrestling statewide, KSHSAA sanctioned girls’ wrestling as a sport and eliminated the opportunity for girls to compete with boys.”

A spokesperson for KSHSAA said districts that planned to participate in fall sports such as gymnastics had been given two dates to submit their intent – a preliminary one in April and a final one in mid-August. The Lawrence school district has not provided information about its intent to participate to KSHSAA as of publication time, said Annie Diederich, assistant executive director, via email.

When that information was shared with representatives from two other Sunflower League schools that offer girls gymnastics, spokespersons for the Shawnee Mission and Olathe school districts said they were moving ahead with plans to continue the sport in 2022-23.

And like the Lawrence school district, Olathe faces a budget shortfall. Theirs is estimated at $29 million.

“At this time, the Olathe Public Schools has no plans to eliminate gymnastics as part of the district’s budget challenges,” Becky Grubaugh, communications and media manager, said in an email.

All seven Lawrence school board members were offered an opportunity to comment on this story. Kay Emerson responded but did not speak on gymnastics.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

More coverage: High school gymnastics

High school gymnasts, coach want answers from Lawrence school district about program’s future

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Lawrence High freshman Adriel Lamer could envision her future when the gymnastics season started last fall. But since December, whether the sport will continue during the 2022-23 school year in the Lawrence school district has remained uncertain.

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