City school district parents unhappy with response to Title IX complaints, plan to air concerns at Tuesday meeting

Northern New York Newspaper (Watertown, NY)

August 19, 2022

WATERTOWN — After speaking during the last Watertown City School District Board of Education meeting and outlining what he finds to be blatant violations of Title IX in favor of the boys lacrosse teams over the girls, a parent is unhappy with how the district has initially responded to the claims, and he’s not the only one.

Peter M. Virga made his initial statements — citing six instances of alleged inequity between the girls and boys teams over equipment and uniforms to practice times and medical equipment — to the board earlier this month and gave the district 10 days for an initial response, which he received on Aug. 11 — a day before his imposed deadline. The district took Mr. Virga’s points and laid out answers to them in the form of a chart.

“We took a look at all of his concerns and I think that we’ve responded to meet the needs of some of the things that he was talking about and, as I’ve said before, sometimes when we don’t know, people bring things up and then we can go in and take a deeper dive into any allegations that have or haven’t happened,” Superintendent Patricia B. LaBarr said. “Everything that he had a concern about was addressed within the time frame he suggested and sometimes it does take more than 10 days, but we dug right into it.”

Mrs. LaBarr will be retiring from the district at the end of the month.

The district contends that information sent to Mr. Virga is all based on facts and hard data about what the district is doing to meet those stipulations of Title IX. Anyone with questions can call the district.

“I think that’s the beauty of the communication chain is knowing that we have an open door policy,” Mrs. LaBarr said. “We’re here to hear parents out, to listen to their concerns and answer their questions.”

As for Mr. Virga’s points on protective equipment being supplied for boys lacrosse, but not girls, the district said required equipment for girls lacrosse includes goggles and mouthguards, and goalies are required to wear a helmet with a face mask, a separate throat protector, padded gloves and a chest protector. Helmets for field members are not required by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. The district noted that it will continue to purchase and make available mouthguards and goggles for girls lacrosse players and that it also has lacrosse sticks available for use and full goalie equipment.

There is a disparity between the boys and girls lacrosse budgets for 2021-22 as additional protectors that meet requirements of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment and contain a Safety Equipment Institute certification mark had to be incurred in order for student-athletes to be able to participate in boys lacrosse.

The use of goalie chest protectors that meet the NOCSAE performance standard, called ND200, is now mandatory in the USA Lacrosse boys and girls youth rules, the National Federation of State High School Associations boys and girls high school rules, and the NCAA men’s and women’s rules. Beginning in 2022, boys and men’s field players must also wear chest protection that meets the ND200 standard.

As for the boys teams having designated locker rooms while the girls do not, the district offered this response:

“All athletes are given the opportunity to have a lock/locker. Past history has indicated that the players on the girls lacrosse team have chosen to use the boys locker room at Case Middle School during practices/games. They do not have locks assigned to them, as they, as players, have chosen not to sign locks out for use during the season. All student-athletes are afforded the opportunity to have a locker/lock. Starting this fall, all female athletes will be assigned a locker/lock, whether or not they choose to use it.”

Mr. Virga noted that the boys teams would have their uniforms laundered while the girls teams were left to take care of their laundry on their own. Upon investigation, the district found that boys football, wrestling, basketball and lacrosse teams had their uniforms laundered by a male athletic custodian and said the practice will cease immediately.

For Mr. Virga’s points about medical services, or lack thereof, the district said that under New York State Education Department regulations, all people who coach high school interscholastic sports in New York must be certified in first aid and CPR and that the athletic custodian stocks each team’s medical kit at the beginning of each athletic season.

According to the district, when the coaches need their medical kits restocked during the season, they are to obtain supplies from the athletic custodian and coaches are trained on what medical supplies need to be included in the kits. Additionally, the district noted that it has purchased an automated external defibrillator, AED, for each coach to have at all practices and games, both home and away. According to the district, items contained within each medical kit include an EpiPen, athletic tape, disposable ice packs, bandages, Bacitracin, elastic wrap, a hazardous spill kit, CPR masks and a “Protocols for Concussions” card, among other things.

Though he was not impressed by the district’s response, Mr. Virga said he followed up with the board last week and a lot of the things he mentioned have started to be investigated.

“The board seems to be really doing things in a much different fashion than the board has previously,” he said. “And in the early phases, they are so far outperforming the old board in my opinion in relation to the students, which is really why they’re there at the end of the day. I hope that they take it seriously and I’d hate to have to go to the next level because it really seems like it would be a layup for anyone — it’s easy pickings for them against the district.”

Mr. Virga said that his daughter has been lucky enough to play on the varsity lacrosse team since eighth grade and has observed and complained of certain things to him, and she’s happy that they’re being reviewed. This is the first time Mr. Virga has spoken in front of the board, though he said he has spoken to Mrs. LaBarr on a number of occasions about various concerns. Having not seen anything being done to address those concerns, he decided to take them to a more public forum by addressing the school board during a public meeting.

While speaking during the public comment period at the Aug. 2 meeting, Mr. Virga said that if nothing was done, litigation may need to be pursued. He has not yet decided to file any form of litigation, but he and parent Milly C. Smith plan to air their concerns once more at the board meeting on Tuesday, which begins at 4 p.m.

“I’m not asking for one apple here, one apple here, anything like that,” he said. “Obviously that’s ludicrous, but this is untenable over time for the girls.”

In contrast to what was presented by the district, Mr. Virga said that in the last seven years of Watertown lacrosse, equipment has never been made available or purchased for the girls. He also stated that the boys have a locker room devoted to just them and that the girls demand and deserve the same, while the district noted that according to their investigation, the girls seemingly chose to use the boys locker room at Case Middle School. Mr. Virga also said he is not satisfied that the district will cease the practice of having the uniforms of multiple boys teams laundered by a male athletic custodian.

“The school district seems to believe that the fact all girls athletes have been discriminated against for years should just be forgotten,” Mr. Virga said in response.

Mr. Virga also said the district did not address any items he brought up about the lack of experience and quality of coaching and, as for safety, said that although the district “hopes and believes the medical kits are adequate, they are proven wrong simply by the fact that a parent had to run to get ice from the snack bar during a game because the kit was not stocked.” He also claimed that AEDs are not brought to games as they should be.

The game in question was a sectional game against Central Square toward the end of this past season when Mrs. Smith was in the stands watching her daughter play. When her daughter was hit and fell to the ground, she didn’t think much of it at first until some time had gone by, no one on or around the field had made a move to assist, and she saw her daughter “pick her head up in a pool of blood.” She said that’s when she jumped up and ran toward the field, even though she was aware of a rule that parents are not allowed to go out onto the fields.

“I got to my daughter and there was blood all over; I wanted to assess what was going on,” she said. “I figured out that she had a bad nosebleed so I ran back to the sidelines and said to the coach, ‘I need an ice pack, where’s the medical kit?’ There was nothing in there, no ice, just some old bandages. I ran from the field to the concession stand (got ice) and ran back onto the field. I walked her back to the sidelines and by then we were able to get the bleeding to stop and then everyone was just kind of like in a tizzy, nobody knew what to do. Obviously that was disappointing and discouraging.”

As for the interim period until a new athletic director is announced, Mrs. LaBarr said that Michael Lennox, current principal of Starbuck Elementary, served in the position prior to becoming principal, and has been helping this summer where he can. She said that he will be working with the girls so that the student-athletes will have a say in their uniforms.

According to both Mr. Virga and Mrs. Smith, former athletic director George Emrich did not leave the position, he was essentially relieved of his duties when he was not offered tenure. As this occurred well before the end of the school year, they contend that there should have been enough time to find a replacement and that the students suffer for the inadequacy of the adults in charge.

According to Mrs. Smith, Tina M. Lane, assistant superintendent for personnel and student services, is responsible for what happened with the search for a new athletic director in Mr. Emrich’s absence, as she vetted applications. There was a committee that interviewed all of the candidates and the committee proposed a district staff member and were going to call for a vote until word got out the staff member didn’t have the credentials to be the athletic director, Mrs. Smith claims. She wondered what will happen this time around with applicants should the same person be in charge.

As this is classified as a personnel issue, the district declined to comment on this topic.

“It’s not that we’re trying to beat people up,” Mrs. Smith said about bringing concerns in front of the board. “We just want our school system to be better. And in order for it to be better, you have to point out the weaknesses.”

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