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    Photo: Rob Manning/OPB

Mom's Prep Sports Investigation Finds Bias — And A System That Perpetuates Secrecy

Finding a pattern is one thing. Proving discrimination and getting changes is quite another … especially when the problems seem perfectly suited to slip through cracks in Oregon bureaucracy.

Linda Nezbeda’s conflict with the Beaverton School District didn’t start with the high schools or coaches, but rather inside elementary school classrooms.

Nezbeda was running after-school programs and getting billed for using school space. So she investigated, and after talking to high school students, searching district records and digging into social media sites, she concluded that costs and athletic opportunities at one of Oregon’s largest school districts favored boys over girls.

Finding a pattern is one thing. Proving discrimination and achieving changes is quite another … especially when the problems seem perfectly suited to slip through cracks in Oregon bureaucracy.

Nezbeda started over two years ago by alerting top Beaverton school officials to what she’d found: Girls were being charged more than boys for sports-related activities. She expected district leaders to be as alarmed as she was.

“We tried to reach out, once we got more of the information and tried to talk to the previous superintendent [Jeff Rose],” Nezbeda recalled.

Nezbeda knew a number of high school students through her non-profit, Beaverton Community for Education. They volunteered to run the after-school academic and fitness classes, primarily for elementary students from low-income backgrounds.

Kaylee Rutherford volunteered and advised Nezbeda as a student at Aloha High School.

“[Nezbeda and other parents] were trying to make it known about the extra fees and fines, and the discrimination between boys and girls with the sports teams,” Rutherford said.

Nezbeda said she felt she was getting little response despite sending messages, providing information and testifying at board meetings.

“So we filed a lawsuit,” she said.

But a lawsuit is a blunt instrument in the sensitive world of high school athletics. While it grabbed the attention of district administrators, the legal action also led some coaches to grow suspicious of their own athletes, according to Nezbeda and Rutherford.

“I talked to a lot of girls who liked that we were talking about the issue, but didn’t want to say anything unless more girls came forward,” Rutherford said. “They were nervous. Especially our softball team. It’s a really small program, so all the coaches are going to know who’s talking.”

Nezbeda dropped the lawsuit a year and a half ago, in part to protect students, she says, but also because a new superintendent, Don Grotting, pledged action. But months went by without progress. She was told the district’s focus was on opening a new high school and redrawing school boundaries.

Nezbeda, meanwhile, continued her research through records requests and by reaching out to coaches, students and parents.

She also contacted government agencies from the Beaverton School Board all the way to the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in Seattle.

At the local level, officials had jurisdictional questions about Nezbeda’s accusations of discrimination at sports camps run by part-time coaches. Beaverton’s government affairs director, David Williams, wasn’t sure how outside activities like summer camps fit with the gender equity rule for public education, known as Title IX.

“An offseason camp, that is not a school-sponsored camp,” he said.

At the federal level, civil rights investigators in Seattle directed Nezbeda to state and local oversight first, which led her to the Oregon Department of Education’s appeal process for discrimination complaints.

Linda Nezbeda began Beaverton Community for Education in 2012, to support after-school programs for low-income kids. She has since challenged the Beaverton School District over gender bias in sports.

Linda Nezbeda began Beaverton Community for Education in 2012, to support after-school programs for low-income kids. She has since challenged the Beaverton School District over gender bias in sports.

The Oregonian

Those are handled by legal affairs analyst Emily Nazarov.

“This is what I tell parents when they call with a complaint: Oregon is local control, which means much of the authority rests with local school districts,” Nazarov said.

But in Nezbeda’s case, she’d already complained in Beaverton, and so could bring an appeal to the state.

At the same time, Beaverton district officials were in contact with ODE to do an audit — which they later renamed a “self evaluation.” Nezbeda split her attention between the assessment Beaverton was doing with the state and the formal investigation she was pursuing with the same department into the district.

They’ve both had problems.

Nezbeda has repeatedly asked for records of the self evaluation, including Title IX correspondence involving two top administrators. The district responded why telling her getting those records could cost a whopping $23,000, based on what it would cost the district to hire an outside law firm at $200 per hour to scour 7,000 emails for confidential information.

In January, Williams presented a report on the Beaverton School District elf-assessment, finding many areas of compliance with Title IX. But it also failed to get coaches to respond to questionnaires, leading the district to do another round of surveys of its coaching staff this school year.

The formal investigation through the appeal process isn’t going much better. Oregon’s appeal process for discrimination cases in public schools seems designed to avoid systemic changes and instead perpetuates a culture of secrecy.

Discrimination appeals start with an investigation, which yields one of two conclusions: “We say either there’s no evidence of a violation, or there may be a violation,” said ODE legal affairs analyst Emily Nazarov.

By design, investigators don’t conclude that there is discrimination, only that there isn’t, or that there “may” be. 

And if it’s “maybe,” it’s up to the people complaining — usually parents — to enter mediation with the school district — the same district they’re concerned may be discriminating against their children.

But many months in, Nezbeda’s appeal is still being investigated. Unlike other kinds of appeals the state deals with, the process for discrimination has almost no deadlines.

Kim Sordyl, a long-time education activist and liaison to the state board, says the process is intentionally difficult. “Illogical, abusive,” are the first two words Sordyl uses to describe it.

“It’s another delay tactic that I see school districts and the Department of Education use to hopefully just wear parents down until they just go away,” she said.

If parents wait for the end of the investigation, and find mediation isn’t getting them anywhere, they can request a state hearing. But even getting to the point of scheduling a hearing is extremely rare.

“In the time that I’ve been with the department, which is about four and a half years, there have been two cases where we have had a hearing scheduled, and the parties have exchanged documents, and then right before the hearing, the parties have settled,” Nazarov said.

Those cases, from the Medford and Brookings-Harbor school districts, were settled secretly. Not even Nazarov knows the terms.

Kim Sordyl is an education activist and ex-officio member of the state Board of Education, representing the Oregon secretary of state.

Kim Sordyl is an education activist and ex-officio member of the state Board of Education, representing the Oregon secretary of state.

Rob Manning/OPB

In Medford, the parents of a black, female student contended that their daughter was discriminated against when she was denied a transfer to a different high school. The parents said they had legitimate reasons for the transfer that other students had previously used, but that the district blocked the move for discriminatory reasons that were in part related to the girl’s athletic interests.

The Brookings-Harbor case dates to 2013, and like the Medford case, had a sports component and was settled in secret. The Brookings case alleged bullying and unwanted sexual innuendo from a basketball coach and retaliation from the district superintendent.

The names of the district employees in the two cases are included in public records released to OPB. But terms of the settlement have not been disclosed and the closest the records come to confirming discrimination are investigative summaries that say they “may” have occurred.

The alternative to these secret settlements is a public hearing, at which student in Brookings-Harbor, Medford — or Beaverton — could be forced to testify on the record against administrators, teachers or coaches.

OPB learned through a separate records request that ODE has not held a hearing on a discrimination appeal in 20 years. They’ve all been resolved privately.

ODE plans to revise its discrimination appeal process, but for appeals underway — like Nezbeda’s — that probably won’t help.

Investigators have not concluded their work, but Nezbeda is confident they’ll conclude discrimination “may” have occurred in Beaverton. But neither mediation nor a hearing feels like it’ll be helpful to Nezbeda.

Nezbeda is exploring other routes to bring more attention to issues involving coaches charging potential players, and often charging girls more, all with inclusion on a competitive team hanging in the balance.

One of those routes looks beneath the discrimination component to the underlying question of whether coaches should be running club teams, for players who might also try out for the coach’s high school teams.

Nezbeda said she knows of several coaches with clear connections to outside sports clubs.

In volleyball, for instance, there are at least three high school coaches who run club teams within the Columbia Empire Volleyball Association — an organization that requires dues and other fees for its participants.

Facebook pages for the teams connect to the coaches’ high school programs. One plainly states that one of the purposes of the club team is “preparing young female athletes for future high school play at Aloha High School.”

It’s a tricky issue, says Beaverton’s government relations director, David Williams.

He notes that coaches are typically district employees for just the three-month sport season. Outside of that, they aren’t on the payroll, they don’t have district email, they don’t even have keys to the building. They’re on their own.

“The time when they’re not an employee of my organization, what obligation do I have to my students, to put restrictions on what [the coaches] can or can not do?” he said. “What legal authority do I have?”

But Nezbeda, student athletes and their parents point out that coaches are known year-round as the coach of a high school team, not just during the season.

More than that, though, job descriptions for coaches often include explicit expectations outside the regular season. A job posting from 2015 for the head basketball coach at Westview High lists “develop and implement an off-season program,” among the duties.

Nezbeda learned that school investigators felt limited in what they could investigate by jurisdictional lines. Just as Williams questioned his authority to limit the coaches’ outside work, Nezbeda heard state regulators express reluctance to investigate such cases.

“They kept coming back with ‘Well, that’s not under the school umbrella because they’re for-profits,’” Nezbeda said. “They’re not connecting the dots.”

Nezbeda said the department’s reluctance to look at club sports makes it impossible for the department to get a clear view of what female student-athletes and their parents are paying.

“They can’t genuinely investigate those charges if they’re not looking at what’s creating those charges in the first place,” Nezbeda said.

In recent months, Nezbeda has moved on two other fronts: a possible audit from the Oregon Secretary of State and investigations from the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.

Nezbeda has filed ethics complaints against three volleyball coaches, accusing them of using their public positions to advantage their club sports businesses. Nezbeda says she’s preparing as many as 17 more ethics complaints.

It’s hardball, personal and not something Nezbeda seems happy about doing.

Even before the ethics complaints, Nezbeda said, she started receiving threats and is now in regular contact with Washington County deputies. She’s hoping her efforts will ultimately level the playing field for girls in Oregon. She was hoping it would happen before her daughter gets to high school in a few years. But now?

“After going through this, we’re actually, probably going to move from the Beaverton School District,” Nezbeda said.

Nezbeda said she’s learned one more thing in her research: the problems she’s found are by no means unique to Beaverton.  That’s just where she’s been looking.