In an agreement announced today with the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York City Department of Education will move the high school girls’ soccer season from spring to fall starting next school year. The change gives girls’ soccer players opportunities for athletic development and college recruitment already provided to boys, who play soccer in the fall along with the city’s private schools and the public schools in all of the state’s other counties.

The NYCLU threatened to sue the Department of Education (DOE) after it was approached by three city public high school students and girls’ soccer athletes who believed that scheduling a spring season for girls was discriminatory. The young women were later joined in their effort by the National Organization for Women, New York City Chapter (NOW-NYC).

“Forcing girls to play soccer out of season relegated them to second-class status, and told them that they were not entitled to the same advantages as the boys,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “The DOE is right to end this discriminatory practice and ensure that all its soccer athletes have equal opportunities to develop their talents and enjoy the game.”

The NYCLU argued that by scheduling girls’ soccer in the spring, the DOE’s Public School Athletic League (PSAL) violated Title IX of the federal Educational Amendments Acts of 1972, which prohibits discrimination against women and girls in education, including high school athletics. Playing in the spring deprived girls of opportunities for college recruitment and scholarships and the chance to compete with teams outside of New York City. It also forced some girls to choose between playing high school soccer and playing on premier “club” soccer teams, which focus on developing elite players and provide additional opportunities to develop skills. Those girls who chose to do both faced higher risk of injury, stress, and academic failure due to the heavy, and sometimes conflicting, demands of practice and competition.

The NYCLU first brought this to the attention of the DOE in December of 2007. After months of negotiations, the NYCLU was preparing to file a lawsuit when the DOE agreed to make the change. In exchange, the NYCLU agreed not to sue and to withdraw a federal discrimination complaint that was filed.

Under the agreement, the DOE will schedule girls’ soccer teams to compete in the fall starting in 2009 and at least until 2011. It also agreed to provide “substantially equal” opportunities for boys’ and girls’ soccer overall, and to make reasonable efforts to maintain the same number of games girls’ teams play following the switch.

“NOW-NYC is proud to celebrate in this victory for young women athletes, which not only ensures compliance with Title IX’s equity in education law but delivers on the spirit in which that law was made,” said Deputy Director Jean Bucaria. “We are not letting discrimination stand in the way of these girls’ dreams and goals.”

The NYCLU’s clients – Hannah Anousheh, a 10th grade student at Bronx Science High School; Christina Angione, an 11th grade student at Beacon High School in Manhattan; and Alyssa Ward, a 10th grade student at School of the Future in Manhattan – are soccer athletes who had to choose whether to play for their school and club teams, or both, in the spring.

“Girls deserve the opportunity to play year round,” said Anousheh, 15. “Having a fall season will spare me the exhaustion of playing for both my school and premier club team in the spring. I’ll have more time to focus on my soccer game and my schoolwork, an opportunity the boys have always enjoyed.”

Ward, 16, said moving the season to the fall is simply a matter of fairness.

“Soccer is traditionally a fall sport. The boys and most other girls’ teams play in the fall, and it seemed unfair that we had to play off season,” Ward said. “This change means that we no longer have to feel like second-class citizens and that our hard work and dedication to the game is being appreciated.”

Angione, who plans to play college soccer, said the spring season forced her into difficult choices.

“I had to choose between playing for my high school team and joining the Olympic Development Program,” said Angione, 16. “I decided to play for my high school, because I enjoy the school spirit and being with my friends, but it cost me a unique opportunity to develop my skills and demonstrate my game to college scouts. Boys don’t face that roadblock.”

In August of 2006, New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum released a report, “Making the Team: Gender Inequality in New York City PSAL Sports Teams,” which found that PSAL discriminated against girls by scheduling some girls’ sports, including soccer, in the off season.

“This settlement ends a clear practice of discrimination against our young, talented female athletes,” said Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. “In my 2006 report I shined a light on the DOE’s biases in favor of boys’ sports. The report found that inequitable scheduling puts girls at a disadvantage in gaining athletic scholarships. I urged the DOE to stop scheduling girls’ sports in the off season and give them the same opportunities it gives boys. This agreement is a victory for female athletes and will ensure fairness and equality for all soccer players in New York City’s public schools.”

Galen Sherwin, director of the NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project and the lead counsel in the matter, applauded the DOE for doing the right thing.

“This agreement is a victory for fairness and equality not only for the hundreds of girls who play soccer in New York City’s public schools, but for all girls in New York City,” said Sherwin. “It tells girls that they are worthy of all the benefits and advantages provided to boys, and it gives them opportunity to thrive both as scholars and as athletes.”

In addition to Sherwin, attorneys involved in reaching the agreement were NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, NYCLU Staff Attorney Deborah Berkman, and NYCLU Reproductive Rights Project Attorney Ami Sanghavi.