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Race, Sex Balance Ordered for Academic Teams

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The coach of a Los Angeles high school's "academic decathlon" team threatened last week to sue her superiors over a controversial directive that squads in the competition reflect the sexual and ethnic composition of their schools.

The May 8 order, in the form of an unsigned letter from the school district's high-school division to all of the district's decathlon coaches, came following complaints over the winner of last year's competition, a team composed of five white males and one white female.

A spokesman for Harry Handler, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said the letter represented only a minor modification of a longstanding policy that the teams "reasonably" reflect, in terms of race and sex, the schools that they represent.

Constitutional Violation Alleged

But Rose Gilbert, coach of Palisades High School's championship team, said last week that the district has never before demanded such balance or threatened to disqualify teams failing to meet such standards. The rule, she said, mandates quotas in violation of the 14th Amendment, an argument she said she would make before a judge.

"I will even go to court over this," Ms. Gilbert said. "I will not comply. I'll have the kids paint their faces. Let them try to throw me out. I'll have every newsman in the city there when they try to disqualify us from competing."

Academic decathlons, in which students are tested in subjects such as mathematics, science, English, and public speaking, began in Orange County south of Los Angeles in 1966 and are now held in school districts in 33 states. A national championship is sanctioned by U.S. Academic Decathlon, an organization based in Los Angeles.

Robert Peterson, the competition's creator and now superintendent of the Orange County public schools, said last week that he favors the rule established by Los Angeles officials because "it encourages all of a school's students to participate."

Group's Requirements

According to Los Angeles school officials, the national organization requires that teams be composed of two A-average students, two B students, and two students with a grade average of C or lower. Although the group's rules do not address racial or sexual balance, Los Angeles officials included such a provision in their own rules when the district began the competitions four years ago.

According to Bill Rivera, assistant to the superintendent for communications, in past years the administration has sent bulletins to decathlon coaches "stating that teams, whenever possible, should reflect the diversity within their schools."

"It never used to say 'must,"' Mr. Rivera said. This year, however, the directive was "made stronger" following complaints about the Palisades team from individuals and the school district's sex-equity commission. The school, located in the affluent Pacific Palisades neighborhood, is 50 percent white, 42 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, and 4 percent Asian.

The rules now state that "in order to compete, teams must reflect their school's sex and ethnic makeup. No exceptions are permitted."

"On competition day, a final review will be made in order to guarantee compliance," the directive continued. "Teams that do not comply will not be permitted to complete."

Mr. Rivera said the directive does not represent an attempt on the part of the school district to mandate quotas for team membership.

"That would run counter to all that we try to do as an educational institution," he said. "All that we intended to do was to ask coaches to make sure that the team representing their school does indeed represent students at the school."

"That's pure doubletalk," said Ms. Gilbert of the district's explanation. "They want mediocrity, not intellectual strength. And I will not fall to mediocrity. I have never excluded students on the basis of race or gender. As long as they qualify, that's great."

Students, she said, are selected to the team on the basis of teachers' or counselors' recommendations and test scores. She said minority students have participated on the team in the past, adding that this year's two top minority prospects declined to participate "because it was too much pressure."

Ms. Gilbert also noted that the district has not mandated similar requirements for the composition of athletic teams or other extracurricular student groups. Mr. Rivera said that such requirements were unnecessary because the larger size of those groups fostered "a natural sorting out."

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