by Tom Pedulla –
Paul Barger of the Irvington-based firm Barger & Gaines has built an extensive background in education cases since he graduated from George Washington University Law School in 1999.
He represented public school districts in New Jersey from 2003-2011 before what he calls “switching sides” to represent families in various matters, including accommodations for children with special needs and children who are victims of bullying in school.
Perhaps nothing, though, quite prepared him for the potentially precedent-setting case involving Cruz Vernon, a 17-year-old boy at Ossining High School. He has a passion for gymnastics, and he wants to be a points-scoring member of what has always been an all-girls team at Ossining with an opportunity to advance to state-wide competition.
“There is no valid ground to keep him from participating,” said Barger, 46. “It just seems very obvious that there is concern about what this will lead to.”
Vernon was allowed to fully compete in grades 7 through 9. He qualified for state competition in floor exercise as a freshman in 2018, tying for 17th. Section 1 has limited him to be an exhibition performer the last two years, unable to help his team’s cause or his own.
That has made for two difficult years for Vernon.
“Gymnastics is a sport I’m really passionate about, so for me to be limited in this way, it’s very discouraging,” he said. “Even though I try to keep my head up and focus on positives, it’s hard knowing I’m putting all this effort into a sport I love so dearly, and yet I’m not being rewarded for my efforts.”
In a bid to restore Vernon to full eligibility next year as a senior, Barger filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. There is ample precedent for girls being allowed to compete at the high school level on what have traditionally been all-boys teams.
“If we’re saying a woman should be able to participate in traditional male sports, which I do think they should be able to participate,” Barger said, “then why doesn’t it work the other way? Why is it that there are these barriers to compete for males?”
Vernon’s parents, Boneida Cruz and Richard Vernon, had appealed to officials at Section 1, which oversees athletics in Westchester, without success.
“It’s not fair that with girls it’s fine, good for them, it’s an opportunity, but for him you’ve taken the opportunity away,” Cruz said. “We see it as discrimination.”
Vernon, unusually tall for a gymnast at 6-3, acknowledged that there are concerns that he may have a physical advantage in strength. He noted that gymnastics is a non-contact sport and said, “It’s almost saying girls are not good enough to compete against me, which is not only unfair to me but unfair to them.”
Since he was good enough to advance to the state tournament in one event as a freshman, it would seem reasonable to believe he has developed his skills to a point where he might be able to advance to the state tournament in other events, occupying slots that almost surely would have gone to girls.
Barger said of the limitations placed on Vernon, “Given the way the law is written and given the spirit of the law, the only reason I can think of is because he’s good. If he wasn’t good, they wouldn’t care.”
Richard Vernon noted that boys from three other sections in New York compete without restrictions.
“It’s a very easy case to fight,” Barger said, “because we so strongly believe in the cause.”