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Separate soccer seasons for girls’ teams in two Westchester, N.Y., school districts violate civil rights laws banning gender discrimination in athletics, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday. Rejecting arguments by the Mamaroneck and Pelham school districts that logistical problems made it necessary to schedule girls’ soccer in the spring, the circuit said the separate schedules violated Title IX’s prohibition on unequal treatment. The school districts, “have denied equality of athletic opportunity to their female students and have not adequately justified their decisions by nondiscriminatory factors,” Judge Chester J. Straub wrote for the court in McCormick v. The School District of Mamaroneck and the School District of Pelham, 03-7892. The 46-page ruling affirmed the decision of Southern District Judge Charles Brieant, who in 2003 had granted an injunction against the spring scheduling of girls’ soccer and ordered the districts to develop a plan to bring them into compliance. The circuit modified Judge Brieant’s injunction somewhat and remanded the case for further proceedings. In addition to high school soccer, Katherine McCormack of Pelham and Emily Geldwert of Mamaroneck also played for private teams that competed in high-level soccer tournaments in the spring. At trial before Brieant, attorneys for McCormack and Geldwert presented an expert who testified that girls who play soccer in the spring are overscheduled, face conflicts and are exposed to an increasing risk of injury. The expert also testified that the girls are at a disadvantage because many college coaches recruit in the spring. Brieant had ruled that girl soccer players were treated unfairly by spring scheduling because it deprived them of the opportunity to compete for the regional and state championships that are held in the fall — when 649 of the 714 public schools in New York conduct girls’ soccer season. The school districts said that a shortage of playing fields made it impossible to schedule soccer in the fall, that they would have to hire another soccer coach and that there might be a shortage of officials. They also argued that the chance to play for a state championship was not so significant as to force a change to a fall schedule. “We are unpersuaded by the School District’s attempt to downplay the significance of the opportunity that they are denying their female athletes but affording their male athletes — the chance to be state champions,” said Straub. “We agree with plaintiffs that denying girls at the Pelham and Mamaroneck high schools treatment equal to boys in a matter so fundamental to the experience of sports denies equality of athletic opportunity to female students.” Straub noted that schools have “considerable flexibility in complying with Title IX,” in that any differences that favor men’s teams in one sport can be offset by favoring women’s teams in others. But even within that flexible framework, he said, the school districts have fallen short. “Without a doubt, this difference has a negative impact on girls,” the judge wrote. “The School Districts have not pointed to — in their submissions to the District Court or to us — any areas in which female athletes receive comparably better treatment than male athletes at their schools.” And the disparity, Straub said, was “substantial enough” to deny the girls equality of athletic opportunity. The court was also unpersuaded by the districts’ claims that the girls’ teams were unlikely to seriously compete for the state championship. “Scheduling the girls’ soccer season out of the championship game season sends a message to the girls on the teams that they are not expected to succeed and that the school does not value their athletic abilities as much as it values the abilities of the boys,” he said. Judges John M. Walker Jr., and Ellsworth A. Van Graafeiland joined in the opinion. Michael A. Miranda of Miranda & Sokoloff in Mineola represented the school districts. John Paul Robbins of McLaughlin & Stern represented the plaintiffs.

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