The United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on January 20, 2014 granted a preliminary injunction against the LineMountainSchool District that barred a middle-school girl from joining a scholastic boys’ wrestling team.  U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann sided with the girl, 12, and her parents, finding they had made the case that she would suffer irreparable harm by missing out on athletic development if she is kept off the team since there are no other reasonable options for her.  In the case, A.B. v. Line Mountain School District, Judge Brann decided that the harm claimed by the school district was outweighed by those the student argued she would suffer.  As a result of the injunction, the 12-year-old continues to wrestle at Line Mountain.

When the parents of A. B. realized their daughter would not be able to continue wrestling when she left the youth team in the sixth grade, they filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and sought legal help from the Women’s Law Project.  Parents made a claim under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, requiring the school district to prove that its classification based on gender is substantially related to a government interest.  One of the school district’s main justifications was that a safe school environment is in the government’s interest.  “A policy preventing girls from wrestling, however, is not substantially related to that interest,” Judge Brann said. He cited an opinion from the District of Nebraska in 1988, Saint v. Nebraska School Activities Association, that decided a similar case.

The district failed to support its argument with any evidence that the girl would be at a heightened risk of injury “aside from generalized assumptions about the biological differences between male and female physical strength,” Judge Brann said.

The district’s next justification was that a co-ed wrestling team could allow for inappropriate physical contact between the sexes, arguing that girls are “at a pronounced risk of sexual contact and harassment when they wrestle,” according to the opinion.  The school offered no evidence that this has been a problem, the judge said.  “The school district does not forbid boys from wrestling on this basis, although they are also exposed to the potential for inappropriate contact,” he noted.  Judge Brann granted the preliminary injunction concluding that the Beatties were likely to succeed on the merits of their equal protection claim.

Although only a District Court decision, this case provides guidance for the importance of fully articulating the school district’s rationale in making decisions regarding participation on athletic teams.  Districts should not rely on generalized assertions, and if that is the only basis for exclusion, it may be necessary to reevaluate the decision to exclude.

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Alfred Maiello

Alfred C. Maiello is the founding member of MBM and has represented area school districts as solicitor for 50 years. He counsels school districts and educational institutions on leading developments in school law and guiding them through their day-to-day and long-term challenges.