Anchorage School District finds ‘pattern’ of bias in judge who disqualified teen swimmer

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop speaking at a Wednesday press conference at the district’s headquarters. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage School District is standing behind an athlete who was disqualified from a swim meet Friday.

On Wednesday, the district’s superintendent said after investigating the incident, it found a “pattern” of bias by the official who made the ruling and is calling for her dismissal. The swimmer’s family is asking for an apology from the association that governs the state’s high school sports.

A 17-year-old Dimond High School swimmer won a race at a meet last Friday. But a judge disqualified the athlete, because she believed the teen’s uniform didn’t adequately cover her bottom.

The official said she was just enforcing rules on the books. But in the days since, criticism has poured in from across the country, with many saying the record-holding athlete was singled out and penalized because of how the swimsuit fit her body.

Speaking to local reporters at the school district’s headquarters, Superintendent Deena Bishop was clear that after investigating the incident, the district believes the race official was wrong.

“Our assessment was that this decision by the volunteer judge was discriminatory,” Bishop said.

Every athlete on the Dimond High School team has the same swimsuit. According to Bishop, it wasn’t the uniform the official found fault with; the official decided to apply subjective standards about appropriateness to one single athlete based on how the uniform fit her. If the problem was the swimsuit, then all the other teammates should have been penalized too.

“‘Swimming wedgies,’ things like that, do occur,” Bishop said of competitive swimming, along with bathing suits in general. “We have not found, in our investigation, others who were addressed for their attire. No others on the Dimond team were addressed who were wearing the exact same uniform. The discrimination is really with the body type.”

At the same meet, the athlete swam three other races without any uniform infractions noted by officials. According to the school district, it was only after the volunteer judge took over midway through the event that the athlete was penalized.

Bishop and the school district began investigating the incident Saturday. By Monday, they asked for the judgment to be overruled by the body in charge of high school sports in Alaska.

In looking into what happened, the district found that the same judge had acted similarly a year prior. In that instance, the woman had told the swimmer’s younger sister, then 14 years old, that her swimsuit was inappropriate. Though the girls’ family began trying to address the situation then, Bishop said the district was not aware at that point in time.

The frenzy of publicity this week comes right at the start of the new school year and has caused stress for students, families and teachers.

“If this incident can help young people and young ladies swim without bias, swim without being targeted, swim without judgment,” Bishop said, then “I think it is worthwhile.”

‘Another gut punch’

The Alaska School Activities Association, which is in charge of the state’s high school sports, overturned the disqualification. However, it did so on technical grounds, saying the volunteer judge broke protocol by failing to reach out to the athlete’s coach first.

For the swimmer’s mother, that isn’t good enough.

“That’s another gut punch,” said Meagan Kowatch. “That is victimizing her again. She did nothing wrong. She’s wearing a legal suit. Her body shape should not have come into factor. Now they’re telling her her body isn’t appropriate for swimming, and that’s not OK.”

Kowatch said the incident and its aftermath have been devastating for her daughter. News reports have gotten facts wrong. Social media posts circulating among high schoolers have caused embarrassment. Her outgoing and accomplished daughter should be enjoying the start of senior year, but instead she has spent the last few days withdrawn, curled up at home on the couch or in bed.

“She just can’t get away from it,” Kowatch said.

She appreciated the school district’s response and that students and parents had been reaching out to offer support. But Kowatch is angry at the volunteer judge, and she believes an apology is due from ASAA.

Billy Strickland, ASAA’s executive director, did not return a message asking whether the organization has decertified the volunteer judge.

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