4th Grader Lets School Know She's Got Rights

When the girls basketball team was cut from Charlotte Murphy's Pittsburgh school last year, the then 4th grader told the superintendent that the cut went against Title IX. For the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the law that prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of sex, host Michel Martin talks to Murphy and Superintendent Linda Lane.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, let's go right there. Shall we? Have you ever noticed that some men seem to have a thing for Asian women? Documentary filmmaker Debbie Lum did too, so she made a film about it. Yes, she did. It's called "Seeking Asian Female" and she's going to tell us more about it in just a few minutes.

But first, if you heard yesterday's program, then you know we talked about the anniversary of Title IX this weekend. That's the landmark civil rights law that prohibited public institutions from discriminating on the basis of gender. The law opened up many opportunities in sports and other places to girls and women, but as we also talked about yesterday, the playing field still isn't level.

Eleven-year-old Charlotte Murphy found that out for herself last year when her girls' basketball team at Linden Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was cut. Miss Murphy felt that wasn't fair because the boys' team wasn't cut, but the then fourth grader refused to take the decision lying down, or on the bench.

She wrote a letter to the superintendant of Pittsburgh public schools. Here's what she said. She said: Our season was cancelled because of funding. Boys' basketball is going fine. This is a violation of federal law, Title IX. I would like to request a meeting to discuss this matter. Please call to set it up.

And you know what? The superintendant of schools did. You know we had to hear more about this, so we've called Charlotte Murphy. She's with us now.

Welcome, Charlotte Murphy. Thanks for joining us.

CHARLOTTE MURPHY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Also with us, Linda Lane, the superintendant of Pittsburgh public schools. She accepted Charlotte Murphy's invitation and took a hard look at the district's sports teams and Title IX compliance and she's also with us. They were both profiled in the most recent issue of Ms. magazine, by the way.

Welcome, Superintendant Lane, to you, also.

LINDA LANE: Hello.

MARTIN: So, Charlotte Murphy, let me start with you. What did the school tell you when you found out that your team was going to be cut? Why did they say they were making that decision?

MURPHY: I guess they just thought that boys' basketball was more important than girls' basketball because I guess they thought that the boys had more of a future in sports and the girls just would, like, move on to something else.

MARTIN: How did you know about Title IX?

MURPHY: After one of my practices was cancelled, I was complaining to my mom and she said that's a violation of Title IX, and I said, what's Title IX? And she told me that it's a law that says you can't hold boys' sports over girls' sports. And so after they cancelled after we only got three games, I decided to write that letter.

MARTIN: I was going to say - what gave you the idea to write the letter?

MURPHY: I told my mom. I said, what are you going to do? She said, no. It's what you're going to do. You're going to write the letter.

MARTIN: Well, go, Mom. So, Superintendant Lane, what was your reaction when you received that letter?

LANE: I was actually pleased because, as I told Charlotte, that a young lady would take the initiative to reach out and grab her rights, and so I found that very impressive and I knew I needed to meet Charlotte.

MARTIN: Do you know why Charlotte's basketball team was originally cut? And then, of course, I'm going to ask you what you decided to do about it.

LANE: Yeah. Well, as I understood it, we didn't have very many girls' teams, so there just weren't enough teams for Charlotte's team to play against. I think there were only three at the time, so they just would end up playing each other over and over and over.

MARTIN: So what did you decide to do about it?

LANE: After Charlotte and I talked about this, we knew that we had to somehow equalize girls' and boys' teams. I let her know that it would be different this next year. She also expressed her concern about their practices being cancelled so the boys could use the gym, which clearly was not right either. So we agreed that that would be different. But then when fall came, I heard that the teams were going to be made co-ed and we knew that that isn't what Charlotte had in mind and it wasn't what I had in mind either, so we had more work to do.

MARTIN: So what did you do?

LANE: I consulted with a couple of folks in our department about this and they decided this was about the only way we could get there, and of course I too had some concerns. I certainly didn't want to end up in the place where nobody had a team. That wasn't our goal.

However, we believed the girls wanted to play. In order to field a boys' team, you had to field a girls' team.

MARTIN: Did you have any pushback from parents on this?

LANE: Actually, more from some of the schools than some of the parents, although there were parents who were concerned as well, and of course they had the same concern that I had had, that we did not want to end up in the place where no one had a team. That wasn't our objective. However, the facts proved us right, that the girls did want to play.

MARTIN: So what - yeah. So tell me what happened when you made that ruling. A lot of girls did come out to play and...

LANE: Absolutely. We went from three girls' teams to 14. We went from a total of 16 teams to 28. We had one school where 40 girls came out for basketball.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Linda Lane. She's the superintendant of Pittsburgh public schools. She received a letter from 11-year-old Charlotte Murphy, who wrote a letter to her complaining after her girls' basketball team was cut when the boys' basketball team was not. And guess what? Things changed.

So Charlotte, what do you think about that? I mean, when the schools were told you have to offer a girls' team, all these girls did come out. I'm wondering why you think they didn't come out before.

MURPHY: I think they didn't come out before because they weren't offered enough opportunities to do enough sports and they didn't want to be the one school, like the only school that had girls' basketball teams. They heard about all these girls coming out and they were like, I want to play basketball too.

MARTIN: How did you feel when you found out that all these girls were coming out?

MURPHY: I was very excited. I was very happy for everyone. I was like, we're going to have a season. Woo-hoo.

MARTIN: How did your season go, by the way? I understand you did play.

MURPHY: We lost four out of six games.

MARTIN: Are you OK with that, or did you have fun anyway?

MURPHY: Yeah.

MARTIN: So what about next year? Do you think you're going to play next year?

MURPHY: I don't know. It depends on how many different sports my middle school has.

MARTIN: OK, OK. Well, what else are you taking a look at?

MURPHY: If they have a swim team, I'm definitely doing that.

MARTIN: I hear you. Well, Charlotte, how do you feel now that you kind of did this whole thing? I mean, what are you - what do you think? Think you've got a career in, like, politics or diplomacy or something like that?

MURPHY: I guess so. Maybe.

MARTIN: Maybe. OK. And Superintendant Lane, what do you think we all learned from this episode here?

LANE: Well, I think sometimes we wonder about our youth and their ability to take on leadership roles in the future, but when we have young people like Charlotte, it increases my confidence. Aside from that, I think that it reinforces the fact that if we open up opportunities for young people that they step into that space and take advantage of them.

MARTIN: Did you play when you were growing up? Did you play any sports?

LANE: No. I was pre-Title IX. When Title IX was passed, I was actually a teacher at that point. However, that maybe made me even more sensitive to this because I saw what it was like. I was back in the boys' gym/girls' gym days, and we all know that the boys' gym was much bigger, much nicer, and everybody kind of took that for granted like that was an OK thing. So as I said, I think my experience growing up made me more sensitive to this simply because I lived it before Title IX.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. You think that when Charlotte's letter came, it kind of brought back some feelings and memories for you?

LANE: It exactly did. I knew exactly what that felt like and of course was of the belief, as many of us were, that those days were over, and when I hear that, you know, my girls in the Pittsburgh public schools are dealing with some of the very same issues, that was tough.

MARTIN: Charlotte Murphy is an 11-year-old student in the Pittsburgh public school district. Next year she will be a sixth grader at Sterrett Middle School. She is an advocate for Title IX in her own right and she was with us from New England Public Radio in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Also with us, Linda Lane. She's the superintendant of Pittsburgh public schools and she was with us from member station WQED in Pittsburgh.

Ladies, thank you both so much for speaking with us. And Charlotte, congratulations.

MURPHY: Thank you.

LANE: You're very welcome.

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