Black Lacrosse Player Accuses Philly Schools of Sabotage

(Courthouse News Service via Freiwald Law)

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Accusing the Philadelphia School District of slamming the door on opportunity no sooner than it opened, a black student athlete brought a federal class action Tuesday over the short-lived girls’ field hockey and lacrosse teams at Strawberry Mansion High School.

Lead plaintiff Nadirah McRae says the introduction of field hockey and lacrosse in the 2015-16 school year drew strong interest at Strawberry Mansion. McRae “fell in love with these new sports, experienced much improved grades and, for the first time in her life, she saw a path to college,” the complaint states.

That path grew firmer this past June, according to the complaint, when McRae was offered a scholarship worth $250,000 to play Division I lacrosse at the University of Hartford.

McRae says she has been unable to claim the scholarship, however, because of the Philadelphia School District’s efforts to keep girls of color out of the traditionally “white” sports of field hockey and lacrosse.

The school district allegedly put the black players at Strawberry Mansion and other mostly black schools at a disadvantage from the get-go, refusing to let them play against so-called white teams.

Compared with the 98 percent black student body at Strawberry Mansion, the makeup of Northeast High School, whose Vikings team have been champions of the Philadelphia Public League for the past three years, was 30.3 percent black in the 2015-16 school year. Asians and Latinos are the second- and third-most populous races at Northeast, which is 18.5 percent white and 6.8 percent other.

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McRae says the Philadelphia School District  wants to reserve field hockey and lacrosse “for its magnet schools and more privileged high schools, which are not predominately lower-income and African-American.”

They did so, according to the complaint, by taking a concept from segregation-era baseball and creating a modern-day “negro league.”

In addition to barring “negro league” teams from playing the established “white” teams in the Public League, McRae says the district denied requests for uniform funds, canceled their game buses, and refused to act on complaints of racial hostility.

Such actions “not only violated Title VI and Title IX,” according to the complaint, “but robbed the girls of opportunities to improve their skills and to be seen by college scouts and recruiters.”

McRae says the district kept her team and others like it out of the Public League Championship by telling “referees that the teams in the ‘Negro League’ were not varsity athletes but were in a developmental league.”

The complaint also accuses Philadelphia Schools of firing McRae’s coach because she complained about the district’s efforts to keep her players at a disadvantage. Girls’ field hockey and lacrosse are no longer offered at Strawberry Mansion, according to the complaint.

McRae notes that it is no coincidence that the school counselor who could have helped her claim the lacrosse scholarship at University of Hartford is white.

The NCAA’s website notes that students must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA in 16 core high school courses to qualify for a scholarship.

McRae’s attorneys said they do not know if she graduated with a 2.0 or above.

The complaint notes that McRae’s “final grades and SAT scores were significantly lower than anticipated due to her freshman and sophomore years before she began working with” her lacrosse coach at Strawberry Mansion, Jazmine Smith.

NCAA waivers are “commonly awarded to players like the plaintiff,” however, according to the complaint. McRae notes that Smith and the coach at Hartford, Meg Decker, tried to get her one, but that the college never received the necessary paperwork from Strawberry Mansion.

“When asked about the missing paperwork, [the counselor] responded by disbelieving that the plaintiff had managed to get into a school like the University of Hartford and continuously advised her to set sights on less prestigious schools,” the complaint states.

McRae wants to represent a class of similarly situated students. The 18-year-old is represented by Glenn Ellis with Freiwald Law.

The University of Hartford’s admissions and athletics departments have not returned calls requesting comment on the probationary acceptance McRae describes in the complaint. Attorneys for McRae say they have documentation of their client’s acceptance letters.

Decker became the head coach of the Hartford Hawk’s inaugural women’s lacrosse team in August 2016. Decker was also a player on the inaugural women’s lacrosse team at the U.S. Naval Academy and helped build Virginia Commonwealth University’s first women’s program as an assistant coach.

Neither coach is a party to the complaint, which names as defendants the Philadelphia School District and the School Reform Commission, which oversees employment procedures.

The district refuses to respond to any request for comment unless it is submitted in the form of a handwritten letter to their legal affairs department, which would not be possible by the time of publication.

Just four days ago, the Philadelphia School District had its credit rating on over $3 billion in bonds boosted by Moody’s Investor Service, from a Ba3 to a Ba2, with their analysts praising Superintendent William R Hite Jr.’s “detailed understanding not only of the district’s finances, but also of charter pressures and the complexities of managing a highly dynamic, large, urban school district.”

McRae’s attorneys said that regardless of the district’s intent, there are clear systemic problems in terms of girls’ sports in the district and the recruiting process in general that amount to widespread discrimination that this lawsuit hopes to address. They are seeking $250,000 in restitution from the district, as well as injunction against them preventing further discrimination.

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