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J.S. v. Laurel County Board of Education

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

November 9, 2018

J.S., a Minor, By and Through His Next Friend and Father, JACKIE STEELE, Plaintiff,
v.
LAUREL COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          KAREN K. CALDWELL, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. [DE 11; 12.] The Court having been sufficiently advised on the matter, it is HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [DE 11] is Granted and Defendants' motion for summary judgment [DE 12] is Denied.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff J.S. is a 6th grade boy at South Laurel Middle School (“SLMS”). As stipulated by the parties, J.S. tried out for and won a spot on the 6th grade boys' basketball team. [DE 1, at 2.] When it comes to athletics, SLMS is subject certain rules and regulations promulgated by the Laurel County Board of Education (“LCBE”). These rules are codified annually in the Laurel County Public Schools Athletic Handbook. [DE 1, at 6.] The 2018-2019 edition includes a rule referred to colloquially as the “Play Up, Stay Up” Rule. The language of the Rule is as follows:

A Student can only play at one grade level while participating in athletics at the middle school level. If a coach chooses to allow a student to play at a higher level, the student must remain at that level. This rule does apply to baseball and softball in regards to junior varsity and varsity play at the middle school. "If they play up, they stay up". This rule does not apply to the sports of soccer, volleyball and girls basketball due to play being in different seasons.

[DE 1-2.] Defendants assert that in September of 2018, the LCBE amended the Rule to include the following language:

A Student can only play at one grade level while participating in athletics at the middle school level. If a coach chooses to allow a student to play at a higher level, the student must remain at that level. This rule does apply to baseball and softball in regards to junior varsity and varsity play at the middle school. "If they play up, they stay up". This rule may be suspended by the Superintendent at the recommendation of the District Athletic Director based upon low participation numbers on a team to facilitate accommodations for student participation. This rule does not apply to the sports of soccer, volleyball and girls basketball due to play being in different seasons.

[DE 12, at 2.] This September amendment appears to have come as a direct result of J.S.'s challenge to the Play Up, Stay Up Rule.

         Pursuant to the Play Up, Stay Up Rule, J.S. is precluded from playing basketball at multiple grade levels. For example, if J.S. were to secure a spot on either of the high school teams (junior varsity or varsity), he would be unable to play back down for any of the SLMS basketball teams. The Rule also restricts his movement between the middle school grade levels. Thus, if J.S. were able to secure a spot on the 7th grade team, he would be unable to play down at the 6th grade level. And if he obtained a spot on the 8th grade team, J.S. would be unable to compete at both the 6th and 7th grade levels.

         Female basketball players at SLMS and North Laurel Middle School (“NLMS”) are exempt from the Play Up, Stay Up Rule. [DE 12, at 7.] In its current form, the Rule states that the exemption for girls' basketball is “due to play being in different seasons.” [DE 1-2.] This suggests that girls' middle school basketball players are free to play at the high school level and return down to play for a middle school team. The record indicates, however, that the girls playing basketball at SLMS and NLMS were granted not only the ability to play up and down between the high school and middle school levels, but also the ability to play for multiple middle school teams. [DE 12, at 7.]

         On August 16, 2018, Bill Meader, Counsel for J.S., wrote a letter to Douglas Bennett, the Superintendent of the Laurel County School System, complaining that the girls on NLMS's 7th grade team were playing up at the 8th grade level and then returning down to compete at the 7th grade level. Meader also asserted that the Rule improperly discriminated against the male athletes of SLMS and NLMS and threatened to sue if Play Up, Stay Up was not abolished or at a minimum, applied even-handedly. [DE 1-3, at 4.]

         On August 30, 2018, Counsel for the Defendants, Larry Bryson, responded that the reason the Rule was suspended for the NLMS girls' basketball team was because there were not enough players to field an 8th grade team. Bryson specifically pointed to the fact that in there were only a handful of 8th grade girls who participated in the 2018 tryouts. [DE 1-4, at 3.] On September 6, 2018, Meader and Jackie Steele (J.S.'s father) sent letters to Bryson. Both letters clarified J.S.'s position that the Play Up, Stay Up rule violated both the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and certain provisions of Title IX.

         When the LCBE refused to change its Play Up Stay Up Rule, J.S., by and through his father Jackie Steele, filed this action in federal court. The Complaint, filed on October 10, 2018, alleges violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Title IX, Sections 1, 2, and 3 of the Kentucky Constitution, and KRS Chapter 344. [DE 1, at 3.] J.S. seeks injunctive relief, nominal damages of $1, and attorney's fees. On October 19, 2018 the parties participated in a teleconference with the Court. [DE 9.] During the teleconference, the parties agreed to forego ...


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