Megan Garth, an all-area soccer player at Prince Avenue Christian School in Bogart, discovered things she didn't know about football this summer.
The first was that she's a pretty good field-goal kicker. With some help from Prince Avenue football coaches, Garth learned in just a couple of weeks to make extra points reliably and to kick field goals of 30 yards. Coaches told her that she might be the best kicker in the school. Garth was eager to join the team.
But Garth then discovered that her school would not allow it. As do many private schools, Prince Avenue has a policy that prevents girls from joining boys teams or boys from joining girls teams. Garth's final appeal to the school's board of directors was denied late last week.
"We're obviously disappointed and we disagree, but we love Prince Avenue Christian and the people there, and we respect the decision and the deliberation," said Branham Garth, Megan's father. Megan declined to comment for the story.
Students have supported Garth, a senior who scored a team-leading 25 goals last season on the soccer pitch. A petition with some 300 student signatures was given to the administration in support of her cause. The high school enrollment is 275. Petitions also made their way to other local schools, including North Oconee, Oconee County and Athens Academy.
Prince Avenue is not alone in its philosophy, however. It's an issue that has private schools on both sides. Landmark Christian in Fairburn and Eagle's Landing Christian in McDonough, among others, have similar rules regarding mixed-gender participation.
"I know that is probably not the politically correct answer, but we have boys sports and girls sports, and I believe we should stick with that," Landmark Christian football coach Wayne Brantley said. "We would not allow a boy to play girls basketball. Think of what might happen if that can of worms was opened - a 6-7, 255-pound boy dominating in girls basketball."
Brantley also cited concerns of safety and privacy.
"One big reason for me is the possibility of severe injury for the young lady," he said. "Also, there is no way she could dress or shower in the same locker room. If I were to really take a little time, I could probably write you a book on why it's not a good idea. Our main goal at Landmark in football is to build strong men who are warriors. We have other programs designed to build women of character."
According to the Georgia High School Association's 2016-17 participation survey, there were 49 girls playing football in Georgia last season. One of them, Lauren Pearson of Thomas County Central, made her all-region team as a kicker.
There were 1,992 girls playing football nationwide, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. That's about one girl for every 532 boys among the 1.06 million who played the game last year.
Prince Avenue Christian head of school Col. Seth Hathaway provided The Atlanta Journal-Constitution with a lengthy statement explaining his school's position. It cited the school's religious tenets, the covenant between the school and its Christian parents and a commitment to "uphold its community standards and the conservative temperament of the school."
Hathaway expressed concern over precedents. He noted that a previous request by a male student to be on the cheerleading squad had been denied. He particularly stressed the need to establish guidelines that applied sensibly to a school that has grades 12th down to pre-kindergarten.
"While the school recognizes the changing roles of girls in organized sports, its covenantal partnership does not support the belief that mixed athletic contact sports should traverse a spectrum from high school varsity all the way down to the second grade," Hathaway said in the statement. "This is a challenge unique to a PreK-12 school that is not a factor in traditional 9-12th grade high schools."
According to Hathaway, Prince Avenue Christian is not subject to Title IX provisions regarding mixed-athletic competition because the school does not accept federal funding.
Many other private schools do allow girls to play. North Cobb Christian in Kennesaw had a female, Shelby Powers, on its team last season. She was a kicker. This year, Hebron Christian, a Gwinnett County school in Prince Avenue's Region 8-A, has a female kicker, Payton Johnson. Prince Avenue and Hebron will play Oct. 13 on Prince Avenue's field, meaning Johnson might boot the opening kickoff.
Hebron Christian head of school Dr. Tracey Pritchard said her school allows mixed-gender participation, although it requires permission.
"We are always open to at least a 'discussion' and 'evaluation' of whether it is prudent and appropriate to allow mixed-gender participation for a particular sport at any given time," Dr. Pritchard said in an e-mail. "We consider it on a case-by-case basis and within the guidelines of GHSA. Also, typically, participation consideration of a female on a male team is based on the needs of the team."
Georgia High School Association rules state that girls may play boys sports if the school has no equivalent girls sport. For example, a girl could not play on the boys basketball team unless there was no girls basketball team. But the GHSA does not compel its members to allow mixed athletic participation.
Marist and Blessed Trinity are other parochial schools that were contacted that confirmed they have no policy against girls playing on boys teams. Several other private-school coaches or administrators declined comment or did not respond. Marist reported that it had a female kicker in 2000. Blessed Trinity has not had a female football player, but football coach Tim McFarlin said he would welcome one who made the team. He said he had two female players while at Roswell, a public school.
"You do whatever you have to do to accommodate the situation," McFarlin said. "If a student athlete is willing to compete and meet the demands of football, I feel they deserve to be on the team. There would be no discrimination, and there would be no special treatment related to training, practice and games."
Mount Pisgah Christian football coach Mike Forester had a similar point of view.
''We would allow girls to play as we would any student,'' he said. "Our athletes 'make' the team once they demonstrate they can safely participate and protect themselves. Either gender has that opportunity.''
But Prince Avenue and Garth have moved on. The football team has found a new kicker, senior James Delaurier, and he's 13-for-13 on extra points. Like Garth, he had never kicked and was trained in preseason. Garth this weekend was visiting Auburn, where she might study aeronautical engineering one day. For now, she just wants to enjoy her senior year of high school and her last season of soccer.
Hathaway is comfortable with his decision.
"As the head administrator for Prince Avenue Christian School, I am accountable to our school board for ensuring the day-to-day operations of our school remain within the policy boundaries established by those placed in authority over our school, which includes the Constitution and Bylaws of the GHSA," he said. "Our school is in compliance with those policies relative to this issue."
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