The FireLions gymnastics team will go on. After hearing the findings of a Title IX report, the Lawrence school board agreed Monday to look at ways the district could boost participation in its high school gymnastics program as well as other offerings for girls.
An attorney hired by the Lawrence school district told the board his assessment of four years’ worth of sports data showed the district had experienced a decrease in girls’ participation while boys’ participation had increased; therefore, eliminating girls’ gymnastics would create further disparities among district high school boys and girls.
The long-awaited Title IX report brought relief to FireLions gymnasts and their families. After the presentation, coach Kat Farrow stepped up to the podium to speak.
“It’s been a whirlwind — since we were told back in December that we were canceled — of emotions. But as a coach of a very successful gymnastics team, particularly in 2020, taking all gold, every single top spot, plus more. Building that kind of a program takes time. And it takes incredible coaches and staff and support from our families.”
Farrow then shared her feelings about her athletes, whom she said matter most to her and explained her “why” in fighting for the program to continue.
“And I would just like to at some point, I hope somebody says sorry for putting them through it like this. It didn’t have to be like this. That’s what matters most to me. I have a life outside of gymnastics, but I make time because of these athletes because of these students. The same reasons that you guys fight are the same reasons that I fight. I love them.”
Farrow suggested the low participation among female athletes could be related to the treatment of athletes like hers.
“This is the first time I feel like someone is finally on our side, hears us and sees us. That has not happened before. And for the first time people know what we have to go through, just to exist. So if you want to know why numbers are waning, try looking at support and feeling like you care about us.”
Greg Goheen, of MVP Law, was hired by the school district to assess whether the district could eliminate girls’ high school gymnastics and still comply with Title IX – a 1972 civil rights law that prevents discrimination based on sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity).
He explained the three-part test used to interpret whether a school is providing boys and girls equal athletic and activity opportunities under Title IX. While a compliance assessment would generally evaluate three years’ worth of data, Goheen took a four-year look back in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As you can see fairly quickly, the COVID pandemic did have an effect on your numbers — rather substantially, quite frankly, and that was a bit of a surprise to us.”
And, Goheen said, girls’ participation numbers in the district’s high schools had continued lagging since the pandemic began.
Overall participation in girls high school sports during this school year is down from the pre-pandemic 2018-19 school year in track, swimming, bowling, tennis, gymnastics and cross country. In girls’ soccer, participation is up, and it has stayed even in softball, basketball and volleyball.
Goheen recommended the district approach disparities holistically, conduct surveys, talk with building leaders and coaches, and assess anecdotal evidence to determine why boys and girls athletic participation is moving in opposite directions even though opportunities exist. He recommended the district study the problem and encourage increased participation, or it could face more long-term compliance issues down the road.
“Because if it does continue as a trend, it suggests that you’re not meeting the interests and needs of your female athletes in terms of offerings of programmatic issues.”
Board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood questioned whether a factor such as lack of transportation could affect participation. She cited a possible correlation between declining sports participation in girls’ bowling as an example.
With only 22 gymnasts in the combined high school program, gymnasts make up about 1% of high school athletics participants. Goheen said the numbers suggest gymnastics is a sporting opportunity for an “underrepresented class” of individuals.
“You can’t really right now, where you’re at, get rid of the gymnastics program, even though it has a very small impact upon your numbers. It does show that you have an interest level by the underrepresented group. So if you’re going to eliminate that program, you need to increase opportunities in some other area for that underrepresented group and at the same time probably reduce some of the opportunities for the male students so that you have the numbers coming back into alignment.”
After the meeting, Farrow said she thought the board was quick to support the team once the Title IX review was presented.
“I believe that all along a lot of them really did believe in us and our program.”
And while she feels relieved, Farrow said she faced an upcoming season “in a deficit as far as preparation.”
“Other sports didn’t have to take an almost 6-month ‘stop’ and it will be a lot to reconcile. But with our dedicated coaching staff and our incredible athletes who are wildly resilient, not one of us has a doubt that we can do it.”
Lewis said district administration needed to research and address some ongoing issues with the program, such as equipment safety and needs, including how equipment is moved and stored. The district will work with Sunflower League schools to determine whether the district can feasibly host future meets without a permanent facility of its own.
Board members Shannon Kimball and Kelly Jones said they’d like to hear more about the district’s plans to boost girls’ participation in athletics.
Jones said based on the trends seen in the participation data, it could take years for girls’ participation to rebound. She said she’d like more information on additional costs for equipment and facilities to help support the program.
“And so therefore, I would want to understand what do gymnasts need, so that they, we feel confident that they’re safe, they have the equipment they need to be successful and they can participate at a high level.”
Lawrence high schools have won the gymnastics state title eight times since 2004. Free State last captured the championship in 2020 under Farrow, who has been with the program for six seasons, including the last three as head coach.
According to the Kansas State High School Activities Association, there are 14 schools with competing gymnastics teams. In addition to LHS and FSHS, those include: five Olathe high schools, five Shawnee Mission high schools, and Emporia and Newton high schools.