Group says use of Red Storm sports fields is unfair

The single set of bleachers at Schroeter’s Field accommodates many fewer spectators than those at Ken Wilson Field. (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

SARANAC LAKE — A group of alumni and parents of current students at Saranac Lake High School allege that the playing fields for all sports are, in all senses, not level.

Last fall, the Saranac Lake Sports Advocacy Group started a petition on the Change.org website to call attention to what they say are unequal circumstances the sports teams face. They cited Title IX, a federal law that requires equal treatment of girls and boys sports, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The petition read, in part: “If you are in favor of equality, for all girls and boys sports at Saranac Lake High School, please sign this petition to send a message to the administration for a full athletic assessment of SLHS school compliance of Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 2010.” As of Monday, the petition had 539 signatures.

At the center of the controversy is the use of the Ken Wilson Field at LaPan Highway and Canaras Avenue. That field, according to complaints, is more level, has bathrooms, a concession stand and plentiful bleachers — and is the one the football team plays on. Soccer and lacrosse play on Schroeter’s Field, which SLSAG states is uneven, poorly maintained, lacks bathrooms and is difficult to access.

SLSAG leaders Laura Jean Swanson and Amy Cheney-Seymour, mothers of current students, met with school board members in November. The board passed their complaint to the Athletic Review Committee, which looked into the allegations and decided they were meritless.

Ken Wilson Field was named in 1987 after a longtime Saranac Lake school coach, principal and superintendent. (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

Swanson said, “I was looking forward to working directly with the school board, specifically the sports committee members directly on issues that affect the whole student body. Unfortunately so far I’ve been disappointed with the lack of response, from direct emailings from specific board members.”

Mountains out of mole hills

Diane Fox, superintendent of the Saranac Lake Central School District, said that in her opinion the group doesn’t represent the high school students. “This small group is perhaps misrepresenting this,” she said. “I don’t think this is a student issue. I don’t believe the kids are particularly unhappy with it.”

Fox said Schroeter’s Field offers a scoreboard, music and a dugout and is perfectly suited for the sports being played upon it. She appeared to be referring to portable shelters that are used for some games, as there is no dugout structure there now.

Some students and parents complain that Schroeter’s Field has an uneven surface that increases the danger of sports injuries. (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

However, the group alleges that current students, teachers and parents of current students are uncomfortable speaking out. Football holds a special place in this community, and they worry their complaints will be seen as “anti-football” and possibly bring repercussions from the district.

Students with complaints are commonly advised by the AD to bring their complaints to their coaches.

Lauren Reeve, a four-year two-sport athlete from the Class of 2017, wrote in an email, “I have seen firsthand the inequality of girls and boys sports in the Saranac Lake School District. The boys varsity baseball field is centrally located in town, and attracts many fans. The girls varsity softball team plays on the outskirts of town near the Civic Center. The girls probably do not give the same fan base as the boys because of the location.

“The boys field is well-managed and the girls field is full of holes perfect for rolling ankles. The boys field would never be kept this poorly. Many of the girls’ games are canceled due to excess water on the field and this is never the case for the boys.”

Fox disputed the claims, saying the petition was based on false charges that the district was violating Title IX. Amy Cheney-Seymour of SLSAG, said they knew the letter of the law was being followed.

“I followed the Women’s Sports Foundation Guide to Title IX,” Cheney-Seymour said. “They said [based on what I told them] the district is right on the edge.

“The athletic director, two members of the board, and the superintendent met with us Nov. 7. At that meeting, they led us to believe they wanted to work with us.”

Fox said, “Once the ‘no’ was given, it morphed into an Americans with Disabilities Act issue.” The group further alleges that Schroeter’s Field lacks handicap accessibility.

“We looked into that, too, because we’re doing our capital project,” said Fox. “We are going to address that.”

Different fields for different sports

Fox insisted that girls and boys sports are treated and funded equally. “We pay the coaches exactly the same, use the same transportation, spend the same money for equipment. They all play in the same locations. Both girls and boys soccer and lacrosse play at Schroeter’s Field.”

Fox said Eric Bennett, the athletic director and head football coach, and Vernon James, head of buildings and grounds for the district, walked and measured Ken Wilson Field and determined it is too narrow for soccer.

“The football field is sloped for the width of a football field,” said Fox. “Schroeter’s is correctly crowned and wide enough for soccer.”

Further, she said, there would be overlap of kids playing lacrosse with kids playing baseball. “Lacrosse is a spring sport, so it can’t happen at the same time as baseball.”

However, parents and alumni saw it differently.

Terry Brown Buckley wrote on the Change.org page, “I’ve had two girls go through sports at SLHS and sports are NOT treated equally. Girls sports are by far least important, not to mention if it’s not football or boys hockey, it becomes irrelevant!”

Several commenters said the district’s attitude hadn’t changed since they graduated decades ago.

Colleen Easterbrook wrote: “I used to play womens sports at SL high and I totally agree with this. When I played sports there, the football team took precedence over everything else.”

Crowded buses for non-football teams

Katie Holvik, Class of 2017, wrote: “As a former Saranac Lake student athlete who played both soccer and softball from modified to varsity, I can say with confidence that the inequality is not just by gender but, also by sport, with football taking precedence over all other sports. This was not just evident on our home turf but also when we traveled.”

Hovlik and others charge that transportation is not equal for all teams: “While football got 2 to 3 buses for each away game, soccer and softball got one bus for both JV and varsity teams. This was not just uncomfortable but it was also unsafe. The aisle was completely blocked by equipment and players on top of it, due to the lack of room, even with three girls to a seat.”

A trained volunteer firefighter herself, Hovlik wrote that she has taken a bus rescue class. “I have seen what can happen to a person in a seat, I don’t want to think about what could happen to someone sitting in the aisle during an accident.”

Hovlik wrote that one of the team captains took this problem to Bennett, but nothing changed.

Although the district remains within the letter of the law of Title IX, students restricted to using Schroeter’s Field say it’s hazardous. Hovlik wrote: “All athletes that have played on the Schroeter’s Field can attest to the fact that the field is simply an ankle buster. All the holes and uneven spots on the field cause not only the ball to move in different directions, but also many injuries. One of the main reasons for the poor field quality is the number of sports that use the field for not only games but also practices. Football however have their own game day field and even their own practice field.

“The football field also has enough seating for all of their fans, a snack bar for food during their games, and indoor plumbing for bathrooms. Schroeter’s Field however doesn’t even have enough seating for the student spectators let alone the parents and the fans of the opposing team. If we were lucky there would be a port-a-potty at the field. Another problem is accessibility to the fields. The football field has handicapped accessibility but Schroeter’s is surrounded by hills, causing many fans to watch from their cars on the road because they can’t walk down the hill. I am not saying that football doesn’t deserve all that they have, I am simply saying that all student athletes should be given the same opportunities.”

Turf as a solution

Bennett declined to answer questions for this article, referring them to Fox. However, in a presentation he made to the school board on Aug. 7, 2017, he used pictures of a “virtual swamp” at Schroeter’s Field to advocate for the installation of a synthetic turf field.

“Obviously we had a wetter than normal spring,” Bennett said, “but we had delay after delay because of poor weather and field conditions. We had to cancel a couple games because of unplayable and unsafe conditions.”

Bennett told the school board it would make more sense to install artificial turf at the Ken Wilson field, but that the field should then be modified to accommodate soccer and lacrosse.

A proposal by the district to install artificial turf at Schroeter’s Field was rejected by voters in 2006.

“Revisiting the turf field,” said Swanson, “that’s what we really need. The problem is that getting it could take years.”

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