How a Minden Lawsuit Redefined Title IX for Public Schools
By Bill Kelly , Senior Producer/Reporter Nebraska Public Media
Dec. 31, 2021, 8 a.m. ·
Listen To This Story
There are certain traditions that make a Minden High School homecoming unique. The parade circling the Kearney County Courthouse includes the big purple bell that rings out every year. The town gathers in the town square for the introduction of the new homecoming king and queen waving from the balcony of the Minden Opera House.
At the school pep rally, both boys' and girls' sports share the spotlight along with theater and choir.
“Our approach has been it is what we're doing for our kids and that is no gender basis,” Minden School Superintendent Jim Widdifield said. "When it comes to what we're doing for the guys, or what we're doing for the girls, or what we're doing for our kids, it's the same conversation.”
That had not always been the case. If you attended homecoming in 1995, you might have noticed the ritual only celebrated the football team and the boys returning to the home field.
The Minden Public Schools were found to be in violation of the federal gender-equity law known as Title IX. The school district had been treating female athletes much differently.
Over the years, college athletics earned most of the headlines concerning the advancements guaranteed by Title IX. However, one of the first lawsuits recognizing the law’s importance to high school programs centered on Minden and three other schools called out for treating girls' sports as less important than boys' programs.
It didn’t start with a court case. Naomi Fritson’s daughter Sarah just wanted to play softball. Although Minden had one more sports program budgeted for its boys than the girls, the school district turned away repeated requests from Fritson to include softball, claiming there was not sufficient interest in the sport.
She chuckles when she recalls “telling them that they were wrong,” but adding “there was a law that guarantees my daughter be treated the same as the way as my sons were already entitled to.”
Using Title IX as the foundation for her argument, Fritson sued the school district in federal court.
“To me, it was so simple and the school made it so hard,” she said in a recent interview.
For the attorney filing the case, Kristen Galles, the lawsuit also seemed simple.
“Naomi's a parent of a high school girl and doesn't like the message that this sends to her daughter that she's second class.”
The extensive complaint made to the court covered much more than failing to provide softball to equalize the number of sports programs. It listed a litany of examples showing the imbalance between boys' and girls' sports programs in Minden.
“It talks about equipment and uniforms and schedules, and travel and transportation and access to coaching and facilities, locker rooms,” Galles recalled. “All those kinds of things are actually listed in the regulation.”
The difference in the facilities provided boys and girls became one of the most tangible illustrations of how Minden invested more in boys sports. Kalles said during her research prior to filing the lawsuit she was surprised “there were locker rooms in the gym building for the boys, but the girls had to change across the street in order to have access to the gym.”
“It's like, well, why are you providing two locker rooms for boys over here?” Galles said. “It's just such an obvious thing” for the school to change. “Make one of those (in the school building) locker rooms for boys and one of those locker rooms for girls.”
Within the same year, girls filed three other lawsuits against school districts refusing to add softball to their roster of sports.
The cases never went to trial. Minden settled out of court quickly, admitting no wrong, but agreeing to add softball, while improving facilities, schedules, publicity, and attitudes.
“It didn't take away anything from male sports,” Fritson said. “It just it leveled the playing field for the girls.”
Her daughter graduated before she was able to play softball at Minden, but she paved the way for the 25 years of teams that followed.
Junior Bailey Eckhardt, playing 2nd base and right field this season, was not aware it had taken the threat of going to trial in federal court that earned her the opportunity to play today.
She’s grateful because she sees participation as a chance “to teach you so many leadership skills here and teamwork, like how to interact with people.”
Mattie Kamery, a freshman standout on the Minden volleyball team, plays on a team now equipped with an impressive gym and locker room. The benefit for her is “that feeling of ‘I can do that!’" she said. “The boys had that for a while (and) we didn’t and so now I think girls are even building their own confidence off that.”
The historic lawsuit also came as a revelation for Superintendent Widdifield, who said he was unaware of how divisive the issue was in the mid-90s.
“I have no idea how that started or why it started the way it did,” he said, “but when you look at the crowds, attending any particular event, softball, volleyball, they're just as passionate as anybody.”
Despite multiple requests, Widdifield was unable to provide budget figures detailing how funds were spent on boys and girls activities for this or previous years, but in an interview stated “this community, and these people, want to see everything that's possible for their kids.”
On a night in October, prior to district playoffs, a large crowd was on hand for the match against Superior, including a number of boys from other Minden teams, on hand to show support for the girls.
Today Naomi Fritson “would much rather talk about what I wish was happening now” rather than dwell on the progress advanced by her lawsuit. She sees progress, but with caution.
“I wish that people would not remain willfully ignorant about what Title IX is and I wish that female athletes right now in the high school would investigate what Title IX is.”
Many in Minden were not kind to Naomi Fritson when she stood up for her daughter in 1995. She says she still gets hate mail occasionally.
That pains attorney Galles.
“It was quite a shame,” she said in a phone interview from her office in Alexandria, Virginia. Fritson had said often at the time “I'm not just doing this for my daughter. I'm trying to do this for all of our daughters.” The goal, Gallas said, was to “let them have the opportunity to gain all of the benefits from athletic participation.”
Today, the case of Fritson vs Minden Public Schools still gets held up around the country as one of the first cases to advance the rights of female students and athletes in K through 12 schools.
Nebraska Public Media is reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Title IX through our series: "Title IX: More than a Game." Read more about the landmark equity law here:
- 'We Just Wanted to Play': How Title IX Helped Nebraska Volleyball Thrive
- Title IX Lawsuits Allege UNL Mishandled Sexual Assault Reports
- Work is Changing, But Pay Gap Between Men and Women Remains Hard to Narrow in Nebraska, Nationwide
- Female Enrollment Up in Colleges, but Faculty Pay Gap Remains
- Outside the binary: How Title IX protections affect transgender Nebraskans
- Before Title IX, Women's Sports Pioneer Claussen Found a Path
- Chadron State Sees Women's Wrestling as the Next Big Sport
Get the latest from around Nebraska delivered to your inbox