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The Slippery Rock University female athletes who had filed suit against the school for Title IX violations have reached a settlement with the university. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose preliminarily approved the partial settlement of the student-athletes’ participation claims and certified the settlement class. A hearing for final approval is slated for June 12. The settlement brings resolution to a legal battle waged by 12 Slippery Rock University (SRU) female athletes who alleged Title IX violations, sparked by the school’s announcement that it was eliminating three women’s varsity teams in January 2006. “The women [of SRU] will now have the building blocks to have an athletic program that is comparable to men’s varsity sports,” said Abbe F. Fletman, an attorney for the athletes. The settlement follows Ambrose’s July 2006 order that SRU reinstate two women’s varsity teams – swimming and water polo – that had faced elimination for the 2006-2007 school year in Choike v. Slippery Rock University. (The school had reinstated women’s field hockey following objections by the group of women.) Negotiated in two stages, the settlement addresses both “equal participation” and “equal treatment” claims under Title IX, according to Fletman. Major settlement provisions for “equal treatment” include “substantial” improvements to the women’s softball field; new women’s locker rooms; equitable provision of and compensation coaches for women’s teams; and new policies establishing gender-equitable treatment of travel, equipment, publicity, trainers and uniforms, according to a press release by the plaintiffs. The “equal participation” provisions contained in an earlier agreement – also preliminarily approved yesterday – included maintaining the women’s swimming and water polo teams for a full academic year after SRU achieves compliance with Title IX’s proportionality requirement; and allocating extra money to women’s athletics for a year following any year in which the participation is outside of two percentage points of the Title IX requirement, the press release said. SRU also agreed to create a $300,000 fund to be spent over three years on women’s athletics. Fletman said the settlement agreement provided a mechanism for the plaintiffs’ attorneys to monitor the school’s compliance. She said for the next three years the attorneys would have access to SRU female athletes as the current plaintiffs graduate. U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa P. Lenihan supervised the parties’ settlement negotiations. Fletman and Lizanne V. Hoerst of Flaster Greenberg and Terry L. Fromson and Susan J. Frietsche of the Pittsburgh office of the Women’s Law Project have represented the female athletes since the beginning of their suit. “This was an especially great result because our clients are real young women who courageously brought this action against their university. It was very nice to see them prevail,” Fletman said. Fletman complimented SRU President Robert M. Smith’s personal involvement in helping bring about the settlement. “I don’t think we would have been able to achieve such a good result if the president hadn’t taken such an interest. I think he wanted part of his legacy to be achieving equity in athletics,” Fletman said. SRU Spokeswoman Rita Abent said the university was pleased with the settlement and the commitment of both sides to resolve the issue in an expeditious manner. “The final documents don’t compel agreement to anything other than what is in the best interests of our student athletes and the university’s goals,” Abent said. Scott Bradley, of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, represented SRU in the settlement talks. According to court papers, SRU announced in January 2006 that, for budgetary reasons, it planned to eliminate eight varsity sports teams – men’s and women’s swimming, men’s and women’s water polo, women’s field hockey, men’s golf, men’s wrestling and men’s tennis. When a group of women athletes objected, the school reversed its decision to cut the women’s field hockey team, but stood by its decision to cut women’s swimming and water polo. The women athletes responded by filing suit in federal court. In July 2006, Ambrose found that SRU had violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law that says a college’s sports program must provide “equal athletic opportunity” for members of both sexes. Ambrose said the evidence presented to her in an injunction hearing “unequivocally” established that SRU had “never satisfied the substantial proportionality test since the inception of Title IX more than 25 years ago.” In her opinion, Ambrose directly addressed criticisms that it is unfair to require schools to cut men’s athletic programs to satisfy Title IX’s substantial proportionality requirement where those schools do not have enough female student athletes. “Title IX allows a school to satisfy Title IX without cuts to men’s programs if it can demonstrate that it is fully and effectively accommodating the interests of its female students,” Ambrose wrote. But SRU couldn’t meet that test, Ambrose said, “because it ha[d] eliminated two viable women’s teams which the student body has demanded be reinstated.” Ambrose rejected the college’s argument that it simply could not afford to maintain the teams. “I do not mean to minimize SRU’s valid concern of judicial interference with its independence in deciding how to allocate its limited financial resources,” Ambrose wrote. Although Title IX does not “override financial necessity,” Ambrose found that courts had consistently held that “the pruning of athletic budgets cannot take place solely in comptroller’s offices, isolated from the legislative and regulatory imperatives that Title IX imposes.” SRU officials, she said, “did precisely that” when they decided to eliminate three popular women’s teams despite knowing that the school was not in compliance with Title IX. In court papers, lawyers for the college had conceded that the sports programs did not satisfy Title IX’s “substantial proportionality” test, but insisted that the school planned to be compliant in the 2006-2007 academic year through the use of a “roster management” program. Ambrose was unimpressed, saying that “having a plan to ameliorate inequities is not the same as having ameliorated them.”

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