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Fighting like a girl: Layton teen files federal lawsuit to join junior high wrestling team

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge will decide Thursday whether a ninth-grade girl should be allowed to wrestle on her junior high's team while her case alleging gender discrimination is heard in court.

At age 15, Kathleen Janis is suing the Davis School District for not allowing her to practice and compete with the wrestling team at Central Davis Junior High because she's a girl.

Instead, she is told that if she wants to participate in the district she must do so with the Layton High team, while her male classmates can decide for themselves whether they're ready to train and compete with the older group.

The boys, her attorney argued in court Wednesday, have a choice. Kathleen doesn't.

"There is no dispute there is a strict gender-based decision being made here and she is being denied opportunities," said Stewart Gollan, an attorney with the Pioneer Justice Center.

The high school wrestling season is now almost over, and with the junior high's first team meeting on Friday and a competition scheduled in two weeks, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby is considering whether to grant an emergency injunction that would allow Kathleen to join the team now while her lawsuit gets underway.

The judge will issue a decision Thursday, and further arguments will be heard Feb. 10.

Representing the school district, assistant attorney general Darin Goff maintained Wednesday that Kathleen is not being treated unfairly. Different treatment, he argued, is not discriminatory treatment.

By choosing not to join the high school team when she had a chance, Goff said, “(Kathleen) had an opportunity to participate in the wrestling program and declined it."

Being forced onto the high school team, Gollan said, would require Kathleen to compete against wrestlers with greater strength and experience despite being in the same weight class, and would require her to miss part of her final class period each day in order to travel to the high school for practice.

Kathleen began wrestling in seventh grade, an experience that she said has healed her of fear, bullying and self-esteem problems following a tumultuous home life at the hands of her biological father. She currently participates with a club program, the Crushers, where she regularly wrestles both boys and girls.

"It helps with my self-confidence," Kathleen said. "And you have your teammates there for you. If you lose a match, they tell you, 'You'll get them next time.' They're there for you and are just encouraging."

Kathleen has taken her fight with the school district from the wrestling mat to the courtroom in hopes of opening doors for other girls.

"The way it sounded, we have a really good shot at winning this case," Kathleen said. " I see all these other little girls who are like looking up to (other wrestlers) and saying, 'I want to be there.' It's not only for me, it's so other girls can have the opportunity to wrestle in junior high."

Kathleen's mother, Kelly Janis, is named in the lawsuit on behalf of her daughter, a minor, and sat alongside her during the hearing Wednesday. Her stepfather, Lee Garcia, supported her from the courtroom gallery, taking notes throughout the hearing and at one point holding up a handwritten message that read "I love you!"

Janis and Garcia praised their attorneys and echoed their daughter's optimism Wednesday, emphasizing that they are proud of Kathleen's decision. Regardless of how the lawsuit ultimately ends, they said, Kathleen will continue wrestling.

"I'm proud of her, completely. To see the young lady that she's growing into, I'm amazed that she has blossomed in front of me," Janis said. "She's intelligent, she has a fighter's spirit, and she also has grace and elegance. … I'm just amazed that she's so sweet and then she can be fierce on the mat. I love both those worlds for her."

Since Kathleen began pushing back against the district's policy, Garcia said his family has received calls from other girls around the state who have met similar obstacles as they try to compete in school sports.

"What we're hoping for is a change for all young women in the state of Utah and in other states, that equality in this particular sport should be garnered and granted," Garcia said.

Also in the courtroom Wednesday was Kenny Mecham, a father who has been following Kathleen's efforts in hopes of finding a solution for his own seventh-grade daughter in the Granite School District.

"She's been wrestling for all her life, and now she's getting into junior high and they're saying she can't wrestle," Mecham said. "There's just no reason why girls can't wrestle. There are no issues that I've seen."

Mecham said his daughter's mother has been petitioning the Granite School District to allow the girl to compete, prompting a meeting specifically addressing the issue. The family is now awaiting the district's decision.

According to the Utah High School Activities Association, 14 Utah girls participated in high school wrestling in 2015. In 2013-14, eight participated. In 2012-13, seven girls wrestled, and in 2011-12, 13 girls wrestled for Utah schools. There are 28 NCAA-sanctioned women's wrestling programs and countless club programs nationwide.

In court Wednesday, the judge questioned why, if Kathleen and her family have been petitioning the district since last year, the lawsuit is being brought just days before the wrestling season begins.

Gollan explained that even as they were saving up money to hire an attorney, the family struggled to find anyone willing to take the case. Even waiting a few weeks to join the team while the case proceeds could disadvantage Kathleen, he said.

Goff argued Wednesday that changing the district's policy on such short notice would be difficult and complex.

"This would be a dramatic shift in policy, the district would need to have some way for preparing the other participants for this change in policy," Goff said. "The district would like this to be a good experience for everybody, including this student, and that takes groundwork."

However, Gollan countered that the school already has the necessary facilities and would simply need to implement the policies already in place throughout high schools in the district.

"This is not some massive cultural shift. Rather, it is just changing the policy to allow females to wrestle at the junior high level as males are already allowed to do," Gollan said.