A free two-day camp set for this weekend designed to give up to 100 girls a glimpse at careers in the fire service and other public safety agencies has been canceled after a local attorney sent a letter to the city saying the event violated state and federal anti-discrimination statutes.
Attorney Alfred Rava sent a letter to City Attorney Mara Elliott last Thursday saying his client, Rich Allison, had a son interested in the Girls Empowerment Camp but was “deterred” from enrolling because boys were not invited to attend.
Rava said hosting a “no-boys-allowed” camp violated several California and federal anti-discrimination statutes, including the state and U.S. constitutions. He asked the city to do a “reset,” reschedule the event and invite boys and girls.
“Everyone should be treated equally, no matter their sex — especially by the City of San Diego,” Rava wrote. “San Diego boys, as well as San Diego girls, should know the important steps to respond to and revive a grandfather or grandmother in cardiac duress.”
The next day, Gerry Braun, Elliott’s chief of staff, sent Rava a two-sentence reply: “Our office is in receipt of your February 22, 2018, letter. The event has been canceled.”
Mónica Muñoz, spokeswoman for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, said the camp was canceled after the fire department and the San Diego Fire-Rescue Foundation were notified that the city attorney recommended they cancel it.
However, the City Attorney’s Office said it had not recommended the event be scrapped — rather, it had informed the nonprofit foundation, which organized the camp, that city resources could not be used for the event due to its gender-specific nature.
“Our office made no recommendation as to the foundation’s plans for their event,” Cheryl Nolan, assistant for community outreach, said in an email Monday. “The foundation then informed our office that, given the city’s position, the event would not go forward at this time.”
Rava said his client “timely submitted” an application to register his 17-year-old son for camp and that when Allison contacted the foundation to follow up about the registration, the foundation “ignored him.”
Not so, says Rachel Laing, a board member on the San Diego Fire-Rescue Foundation. Laing posted on Twitter that the boy who was supposedly denied entry didn’t apply and that his father didn’t contact the foundation to see if boys were excluded.
“We have no record of the young man attempting to register, nor of his attempting to contact the foundation,” Laing said in an email Tuesday. “We can only surmise that he might have attempted to register after the camp was already full (it fills up within 36 hours) and got a notification indicating the camp was full.”
Laing said if he had tried to register while slots were available, he would have been admitted because gender isn’t one of the criteria for enrollment.
The camp is held at the San Diego Fire Department’s training facility at the Naval Training Center. It was organized the first time in 2017, when about 75 girls between the ages of 14 and 18 participated.
Staffed by firefighters volunteering from all over the state, campers get hands-on training with firefighting tools and equipment, learn CPR and how to use an external defibrillator. Participants also get to use a chain saw, climb up a 110-foot aerial ladder and rappel down from a second-story window.
San Diego Fire Chief Brian Fennessy has praised the program, saying it may help with his goal of recruiting more female firefighters to join the fire department.
A department spokeswoman said it hasn’t been determined if the camp will be rescheduled.
Word of the cancellation was greeted with dismay.
Martine Blair said her twin 15-year-old daughters registered for the camp, which she praised for attracting girls to the male-dominated industry of the fire service. She was surprised when the event was canceled and wished organizers had been given the opportunity to make modifications so the camp could continue.
“I would rather the camp continue with boys than have it canceled,” she said. “Ideally they could be two different camps in the future.”
Fourteen-year-old Alexandra Mondragon said she had been looking at the date on the calendar for weeks, knowing the camp was coming up. She said she’s disappointed she won’t be able to go.
“I was really upset,” she said. “My mom told me what happened and I was kind of sad and a little bit angry because this guy is taking away a camp for so many girls that they have already signed up for and registered for… I feel this is really taking away from female empowerment.”
Rava said he is an advocate for equal treatment of California consumers under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. By his count, he has worked on approximately 300 matters involving sex discrimination.
“Advocating for the equal treatment of people based on their race, sex, age, religion, sexual orientation, and other protected personal characteristics is a professional and personal campaign of mine,” Rava said.
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