Anchorage schools superintendent says referee’s decision to disqualify swimmer was ‘discriminatory’

Deena Bishop, ASD, Anchorage School District, Dimond swimmer

Anchorage School District superintendent Deena Bishop says she wants an “ambiguous” rule about swimsuits changed after a referee decided last week to disqualify a student athlete for showing too much skin in her school-issued, one-piece suit.

“A bathing suit should be acceptable if it’s designed to be a swimmer’s bathing suit ...” Bishop said. “We should not be determining, because of women’s bodies, how that bathing suit should fit. It’s not our prerogative.”

Bishop spoke out against the rule and the referee’s decision at a news conference Wednesday at school district headquarters. She said the teenage swimmer was discriminated against because of her body type. She wants the referee decertified and thinks the national uniform rules should be revised, she said.

“We owe it to our student athletes to provide a fair and consistent atmosphere in which they can train and compete to their fullest, without judgement,” Bishop said.

[Anchorage School District calls decision to disqualify swimmer over suit ‘heavy-handed and unnecessary’]

The swimmer from Dimond High School was disqualified Friday for a “uniform violation” after winning her second race of the meet, according to the district. The referee determined the suit exposed too much of her buttocks. The swimmer wore the same, approved swimsuit as the rest of her female teammates.

The controversial disqualification attracted widespread condemnation, and captured local and national headlines this week. It has since been overturned, based on a technicality, by the Alaska School Activities Association, the governing body of Alaska high school sports.

Bishop on Wednesday detailed the school district’s investigation into the referee’s decision and what it found.

“I would say this is not a swimsuit issue,” she said. “Our determination was that there may have been, and actually we are saying that there was, bias in assigning those rules to different young athletes.”

The swim uniform rule in question, from the National Federation of State High School Associations, says boys must cover their buttocks and girls must cover their buttocks and breasts.

The rule is too ambiguous and allows for potential bias, Bishop said.

The school district hasn’t named the referee or the Dimond High swimmer.

The referee is certified through ASAA, which is launching its own investigation to determine whether to take away her certification, said executive director Billy Strickland.

According to Bishop, the referee said she was following her interpretation of rules and guidelines when she disqualified the swimmer.

The referee said the bottom of the girl’s suit “was so far up I could see butt cheek touching butt cheek,’’ according to official Annette Rohde, who was working at the meet and questioned the referee about the decision.

Bishop said the swimmer wore the same school-issued suit in four races at Friday’s meet, and was only disqualified from the one. No other swimmers’ suits were called into question.

“The discrimination is really, I believe, in the body type,” Bishop said.

Also, she said, suits sometimes just ride up.

“It’s been called lots of things, ‘swimming wedgies,’ things like that, do occur,” Bishop said. “Those who are in the sport, as well as those who just wear bathing suits, perhaps understand this.”

This swimsuit issue isn’t new for Dimond High.

According to the district’s timeline of the 2018-19 Dimond High swim season and comments from Bishop:

• In August 2018, the same referee had singled out the swimmer’s sister at the Big 8 swim meet, warning her about her suit, Bishop said.

“She and her sister were the only athletes to receive any attention as to the fit of their suits,” Bishop said. “And our assessment was that this decision by the volunteer judge was discriminatory.”

• On Sept. 10, 2018, according to the ASD timeline, their mother told Dimond High administrators she felt “her daughters had been targeted at a DHS swim team parent meeting regarding the coverage for her daughter’s swimsuit.”

• Also that year, the assistant principal met with a team parent who “had taken pictures of others’ children on the swim deck and sent them to others to display the ‘inappropriate’ attire of some of the swimmers on the team,” the timeline said. The assistant principal told the parent that wasn’t permissible, and he should stop immediately.

• The assistant principal attended every swim competition for the rest of the season, meeting with officials to ensure swimsuits met the rules.

Prompted by the swimsuit controversy, the assistant principal in May asked the swim coach to order new suits for the upcoming season so the team would have a designated uniform.

Before, the swimmers could choose their own suits if they adhered to certain standards, Bishop said. Now, they have matching suits that meet national rules, she said.

The Dimond High team had three swim meets this year with no issues, Bishop said. Then came Friday’s disqualification.

“The fact that this continued is what’s alarming,” she said about the referee’s decision. “Evidence demonstrates that the same biased call occurred when all suits were the same on all 23 female athletes.”

ASAA also sent out additional guidelines this week about the implementation of the swimsuit rule. ASAA said it will tell officials that from now on, “the following must be considered: is the lack of coverage the result of an intentional action by the swimmer?”

In a written statement Wednesday, Dimond High coach Scott O’Brien thanked people for their support, and the district for its efforts to get the disqualification overturned.

“It is time for our student-athlete to get back to what she loves: swimming, being the team captain, and just being a high school senior. We ask that everyone respect her privacy, as well as the privacy of the rest of the Dimond High Swim and Dive Team,” O’Brien wrote.

Bishop said the student athletes just want to swim, and getting back to that is the district’s priority, as is working to fix the rule.

The swimsuit incident and the national attention were stressful for many, Bishop said. She hoped the related conversations would help female athletes in some way.

“If this incident can help young people ⁠— young ladies ⁠— swim without bias, swim without being targeted, swim without judgement, whether actually they’re swimming or playing on any field⁠, I think it is worthwhile,” she said.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.