Without an athletic locker room, the girls at James Campbell High School who play after-school sports are forced to get creative.
They change clothes in school restrooms, empty classrooms or sometimes on the bleachers outside as teammates provide cover. They lug their heavy sports bags during the day or convince a teacher to let them store their gear in a classroom.
“Everyone comes up to me and says, ‘Is that a body in there or something? It looks like a body bag,’” joked Chloe Poniatowski, 15, a sophomore catcher on the softball team who often has to haul her heavy athletic bag from class to class.
Teeming with close to 3,200 students as the state’s largest public school, Campbell High hasn’t had a girls’ athletic locker room since it opened in 1962.
It’s a different story for the boys, who have their own athletic locker room with storage units and restrooms.
The boys’ facility can’t be shared due to safety concerns, and the locker rooms used for regular physical education class are not open and available for athletes’ after-school activities.
The gender disparity when it comes to facilities isn’t just a concern at Campbell but at a handful of other schools around the state. It’s also against federal law — Title IX, to be exact.
The consequences at Campbell are wide-ranging. The school is located in Ewa Beach, a hot, dry region on the Leeward Coast where frequent gulps of water during hours of practice are necessary.
Because there are no restrooms by the dirt track or softball fields — only four portable toilets — female athletes often refrain from drinking too much water during practice or, when desperate, run the seven-tenth’s of a mile to a Burger King off-campus, according to students and coaches.
“Sometimes they lock the (school) bathrooms, and we can’t open it because it’s after hours,” said Poniatowski.
For years, Campbell has requested money not just for a girls’ athletic locker room but also for a synthetic track — the current one is made of dirt and contains no lane markings. Also sought is a turf field to replace the grass one worn from daily use by the soccer and football teams and the marching band.
The state’s failure to fulfill those requests reflects the logjam at the Hawaii Department of Education when it comes to capital improvement projects for aging schools.
The DOE is currently juggling 1,500 pending projects across the state, according to recent testimony at the State Capitol from Dann Carlson, DOE assistant superintendent in the Office of School Facilities and Support Services.
The agency was allocated $337 million by the Legislature for capital improvements for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. Building new schools accounts for half of that budget at $177 million. The portion allocated for projects to improve gender equity or rights of the disabled amounts to just less than 10 percent, $33 million.
Campbell’s predicament highlights a pressing concern for many schools in Hawaii: lack of compliance with Title IX, the federal law which requires that schools or education programs receiving federal assistance provide equal opportunities and access to programs and facilities for female and male athletes.
“I don’t understand how there hasn’t been a lawsuit on this yet,” Rep. Matt LoPresti said to DOE officials at a recent House Finance Committee briefing.
LoPresti is seeking a line-item appropriation for Campbell this session: $2 million to develop a master athletic plan and $11.5 million for a girls’ athletic locker room, updated track and field and outdoor restrooms.
But LoPresti knows that in a supplemental budget year, securing that much for his district won’t be easy.
“I’m asking for $13.5 million,” he said. “Do I think I’ll get that in a supplemental budget year? That’s a real challenge. That’s a huge, huge lift to get something like this.”
Even though its progenitor was Hawaii’s own late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1972 – renamed in 2002 as the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act — has a lackluster compliance record in the islands.
Many DOE schools were constructed prior to the law’s passage and never factored in a separate girls’ athletic locker room. Public school facilities in Hawaii average more than 60 years in age, and 53 school buildings are more than 100 years old.
The glaring lack of athletic girls’ facilities at many DOE schools stands in stark contrast to surging participation in after-school sports by girls statewide.
More than 16,000 girls in Hawaii participated in high school sports in the 2016-17 school year. The figure was 3.4 million nationwide.
Yet eight of the 23 high schools on Oahu don’t have a separate athletic girls’ locker facility even though they do for boys. Same goes for two out of the 10 high schools on Hawaii Island, two of five on Maui and one of three on Kauai, according to a 2016 statewide athletic master plan prepared by the DOE.
Participation in after-school sports enhances girls’ leadership skills and boosts their success in academic and collegiate achievement, making them more likely to graduate from high school and score higher on standardized tests, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.
And the benefits to physical and psychological health and self-esteem are immeasurable, say coaches.
“I believe they’re more motivated. They know what they want to do and what it takes to get there,” said Nicole Arata, 24, an assistant varsity softball coach at Campbell who also teaches math.
Arata graduated from Campbell in 2011 after starting all four years on the softball team. She then played for Utah State University on an athletic scholarship before coming back to teach.
Female athletes in Hawaii aren’t getting totally shut out: Kaiser High School recently gained a $7.2 million girls’ athletic locker room and a $5 million synthetic track and field. Kalani High is soon to get a $7.4 million girls’ athletic locker room.
But the projects are coming too slow for some legislators.
Mitchell Otani, principal of Kalani High, commented at a recent legislative briefing that the gender facility issue is “catching up.”
“Not fast enough,” Sen. Michelle Kidani replied.
Litigation related to Title IX compliance isn’t common in Hawaii, but it has been used.
In 2010, several varsity softball players at Maui’s Baldwin High, represented by the ACLU of Hawaii and private attorneys from Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, sued the Department of Education and Maui County, alleging the county field where they practiced was nowhere near the quality or convenience of where the boys’ baseball team practiced at War Memorial Complex.
The lawsuit raised safety concerns because of the mile-long distance the girls had to traverse to get to their practice field at Keopuolani Park as well as inadequate features and having to share the space with another school’s team.
U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra, pointing out he did not have a history of “granting injunctions lightly,” sided with the plaintiffs early on, granting them a temporary injunction that ordered Baldwin High to offer a better alternative for the female athletes.
“This isn’t even a close question,” Ezra said, according to a transcript of a March 19, 2010, hearing. “You don’t let boys play baseball in a first-class facility that you could put minor league ball teams in, and put girls down in a park. That just doesn’t fly under the law. It did at one time. It doesn’t anymore.”
The parties eventually settled, with the DOE agreeing to release funds for the construction of a new softball field that following month.
Female athletes at Campbell on a recent afternoon spoke of the challenges of playing sports in less than ideal conditions, but also voiced their resolve to overcome the hurdles.
“It’s not synthetic, it’s dirt,” said hurdler Leilani Leopard, 16, of the track she practices on from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. after school. “I have bruises, scars all over my knees.”
Added the junior, who intends to go to college on an athletic scholarship: “I’m a competitor and I know some of my other athletes and friends, they don’t want to run in college, so it doesn’t mean that much to them. But to me, I have to find a way to power through.”
Despite the facility gaps, the athletes’ work ethic seems to pay off: the Campbell Sabers varsity girls’ softball team brought home the Division I championship three years in a row from 2015 to 2017.
The DOE acknowledges its lack of Title IX compliance in area high schools. Part of its capital improvements fund is dedicated solely to gender equity, along with complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“I am very, very, very familiar with Campbell High School. It’s certainly been at the top of our priority list for three years,” the DOE’s Carlson said in response to a student question during a recent legislative briefing.
But it’s unclear exactly how the DOE prioritizes construction projects around the state.
When asked about this, DOE spokeswoman Sherie Char said in an email, “The projects in the Program Support category are prioritized by program, starting with ADA compliance and gender equity compliance. Program support also helps to fund ongoing projects, which are based on critical needs, as funding is available.”
She added that the DOE “has plans to build a girls’ athletic locker room facility” at Campbell and that a softball field project is “in design stage” with “no firm construction dates at this time.”
The disparity among school facilities is a sore point for parent advocates like Guy Leopard, Leilani’s father, who has taken a lead role at Campbell to raise awareness of the issue and pressure the DOE and other state officials.
He points out that other Oahu schools have new synthetic track fields — he’s even prepared a Power Point presentation that he shares at neighborhood board meetings — while Campbell has been shut out despite its fast-rising enrollment.
The school has 44 portable classrooms and recently received $27 million for a new classroom building. A distinct challenge is its geography: it’s nestled next to three other schools, including Ilima Intermediate, Ewa Beach Elementary and Pohakea Elementary.
But Leopard thinks the DOE isn’t paying sufficient attention to a school that’s catapulted in enrollment but has subpar facilities.
“Can you comprehend 50 years, five decades, three generations, of people growing up here – the youth of the Ewa Beach community – without a girls’ locker room?” the retired U.S. Navy supply officer said. “All of our money in Ewa is going to new construction, very little is going to renovate, and none of it is going to athletic facilities.”
Campbell’s principal of three years, Jon Henry Lee, said he’s grateful for funds that have come the school’s way for new classrooms and air conditioning, but is frustrated about the Title IX issue.
“The eye-opening and concerning part is when (female student athletes) go to away games and see the facilities that are available there, there is a big difference,” Lee said. “Before this, the heat alone was something that was a major distraction. As we tackled that, we look to other areas that make a comprehensive high school experience much better.”
LoPresti hopes this will be the year to get the ball rolling.
“We are failing the girls of our state by not doing this,” he said. Title IX “is a federal mandate. I think it’s a moral mandate that we provide the same opportunities for girls as we do for boys.”