A Class Action Hero Fights To End Gender Discrimination In High School Sports

Veronica Ollier Lewandowski

Veronica Ollier Lewandowski

On February 24, 2017 Veronica Ollier Lewandowski was inducted into the Impact Fund Class Action Hall of Fame in recognition of her courage and sacrifice as the named plaintiff in a civil rights class action that brought equality on the sports field for young women in California. This is her story...

When I became the named plaintiff in Ollier v. Sweetwater, I was a Senior at Castle Park High School. Half of our softball team played in their younger years, while the rest of us were pretty new to the game. I learned quickly from Coach that nothing was impossible with a dedicated team, and we were. He saw the athleticism in us and always reminded us that we were just as capable as any other player. Coach dedicated himself to giving us every opportunity to learn and be successful. I know now, being an elementary special education teacher, the resources and support that Coach provided us and our families, on and off the field, are difficult to come by. He was the heart and soul of the program.

Our team, the parents of the athletes, and Coach wanted to build up the program by helping to find ways to upgrade the softball field at our school – Castle Park High in Chula Vista, CA. It was devastating when the school administration fired our coach because of complaints to the school about the unequal treatment us girls were getting. It seemed so simple for those with titles who didn’t know us or our program to let go of someone who not only made a difference in our lives, but who had been making a difference in the softball program for years. When Coach was terminated, this was our first red flag and provided the motivation to take a stand in court to request equity on behalf of ourselves and female athletes throughout the school.

We female athletes realized how much we were being wronged and we stood together to fight for what was right. It still baffles me that softball facilities were allowed to deteriorate while facilities used by male athletes were so much better. At the time, we truly were not aware that there was a law—Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972—that protected our rights as female athletes to have equal opportunities, treatment, and benefits, nor were we aware that our rights were being violated. But we quickly learned and began exercising our rights.

With Coach always pushing us for excellence and with amazing lawyers (at Legal Aid at Work, the California Women’s Law Center, and Manatt), we carried through the fight for justice, bringing the litigation. We spent much of our extra time on the case, talked to the many people involved and learned appropriate verbiage to use in a professional manner to assert our rights. But the toughest part, which still is hard, was dealing with the scrutiny of friends, families, and members of our community (including members of the high school that we attended), for taking a stand on behalf of girls. Sometimes, those people said terrible things to us about the lawsuit and our role in it. However difficult these interactions became, they did not compare with the progress we made in the case and the feeling we had when walking into a deposition or the courtroom, knowing we had a voice and knowing we would be heard—to ensure all female students at our school have things like equal athletic facilities.

Since I was away in college for majority of the case, flying in when necessary, it was hard watching and waiting from afar for results. But when we finally won at trial and on appeal, I experienced so many emotions; tears of joy, gratitude, sighs of relief, and reflection on the entirety of the situation.

Now, my dreams and aspirations for the current female athletics program at my alma mater is to build the connection with alumni and utilize resources to keep students involved and motivated, just as we tried to do when we were athletes. Since I moved back to San Diego, I have slowly become more involved. 2017 will be the 3rd Annual Alumni Softball Game at Castle Park High. With the great coaching that the team currently has, the upgraded facilities for softball and other female athletes (as a result of our case), and a promising outlook, I am happy to see that Title IX has given more opportunities to many new and upcoming female athletes from my community.