The landmark class-action case was one of the farthest-reaching challenges to high school sports under federal Title IX protections.
Hawaii education officials on Friday agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by female athletes at the state’s biggest public high school alleging widespread and systemic sex discrimination, as well as retaliation against the girls who raised those concerns.
The lawsuit filed by the athletes and their families from James Campbell High School, located in Ewa Beach, a Honolulu suburb, had accused school officials of forcing water polo athletes to practice in the ocean, sometimes battling whipping winds and choppy waves, because the school had failed to provide them a pool.
Closer to campus, female athletes had to run to a nearby Burger King to use the bathroom, or change clothes under the bleachers or on the bus. By contrast, the boys had their own locker room and facilities.
The case was notable because much of the attention with Title IX has focused on opportunities for women to participate in college sports, while high school programs were seldom challenged. First filed in 2018, after Honolulu Civil Beat, a nonprofit newsroom, detailed gender disparities at Campbell, the case gained momentum in July 2022, when a federal judge ruled that the case could proceed as a class action.
The case also garnered more attention after several plaintiffs and their families spoke out publicly for the first time in interviews with The New York Times last year — the 50th anniversary of the enactment of Title IX, the federal law that prohibited sex-based discrimination in educational settings.
Under a joint motion for preliminary approval of a settlement filed on Friday, the state agreed to hire an independent evaluator to ensure that girls at Campbell High School had equal opportunities in terms of sports offerings, facilities, transportation and scheduling.
The settlement also stipulated that the school would be subject to a seven-year compliance plan, and create a hot line and a place online to report violations, as well as protect students who raised issues about gender equity from retaliation.
“We are hopeful that this monumental settlement will be a building block in Hawaii and nationwide to a future where every girl is ensured the rights required by Title IX,” said Jayma Meyer, counsel at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, which worked with Legal Aid at Work and the ACLU of Hawaii, to represent the plaintiffs.
The defendants — the Hawaii Department of Education and the Oahu Interscholastic Association, which oversees high school sports — contended in their response to the lawsuit that school officials had done the best they could.
They noted that there had since been improvements for girls; a new baseball and softball field with artificial turf includes a small building with some lockers for softball players. State officials also allocated an additional $6 million in 2022 to the Department of Education for Campbell athletic facilities, including a girls’ locker room, as part of a broader $60 million Title IX effort.
But on Friday, the defendants, while denying liability, “concluded the proposed Settlement is fair and reasonable, considering the substantial expenses of protracted litigation,” according to a court filing.
Campbell, whose teams are called the Sabers, has more than 3,000 students, more than three-quarters of whom are Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or Hispanic.
In a statement, Ashley Badis, the lead plaintiff, who won a Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award at the ESPYs this summer for her fight for gender equity, said: “I’m happy that future students won’t have to go through what my teammates and I did. We just wanted girls to have the same opportunities to play that boys had.”