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North Reading softball gets field at high school complex

Joanne Lehner (left) and Jennifer Casoli Vant started the group that raised questions of field fairness under Title IX.

Joanne Lehner (left) and Jennifer Casoli Vant started the group that raised questions of field fairness under Title IX.

Facing a potential complaint over violations of Title IX, the federal law that requires equal treatment of male and female athletes, North Reading officials have decided to include a softball field in plans for the town’s new secondary school campus.

But the decision was based on site conditions — including the presence of ledge and the amount of space available for a field — and not on the potential civil rights complaint, officials said.

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“If we would have had the space there for a baseball field, believe me, that would have been a baseball field because we need one,” said School Committee member Gerald Venezia. “But the space is not sufficient to support a baseball field.

“The dimensions for a softball field are different and require less space,” he added. “In looking at that, we decided that rather than putting in a baseball field that probably wouldn’t be able to accommodate high school players, we would put in a softball field.”

Following Monday’s recommendation from the School Committee, the North Reading Secondary Schools Building Committee on Tuesday voted unanimously to replace a baseball practice field with a varsity softball field on the site of the $122.7 million middle/high school complex and to find a different location in town for a baseball diamond.

“Some were happy with the vote, some weren’t,” said Chuck Carucci, chairman of the 20-member building committee. He noted that with seven softball fields and only two baseball fields large enough to accommodate high school players in town, “we are short some baseball fields.”

The building committee, formed in May 2005, is overseeing the high school/middle school project and had the final say, town officials said.

The fate of the field has been a divisive issue in North Reading for months. Original plans for the 44-acre middle/high school complex, which were approved at Town Meeting in March 2012, included a multipurpose field and a softball field. However, that plan changed in July of that year when the School Committee recommended a baseball practice field replace the softball field.

North Reading High baseball coach Frank Carey and softball coach Walter “Rusty” Russell supported the change, noting the current baseball practice field, behind the middle school, would be paved over for parking during construction of the new campus.

Organizers of North Reading Citizens for Equality voiced concern that the new plan violated Title IX. The group said it would contact the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for assistance if the district did not come into compliance with federal law.

“Our decision had nothing to do with the Citizens for Equality,” Venezia said. “The facilities we provide for all of our teams are excellent. No one favors baseball over softball.”

For more than a decade, the softball team has played nearly 2½ miles from the high school, and players have had to provide their own transportation to home games and practices. Often, older girls gave younger girls rides to the softball fields, tucked behind the E. Ethel Little School.

The baseball team, on the other hand, has been playing on fields adjacent to the high school and has had access to amenities the softball team lacked: locker rooms, dugouts, and, until recently, bathrooms. The adjacent fields will not be affected by the new construction.

Citizens for Equality viewed the town’s plans to replace a softball field with a practice baseball field as unacceptable and urged school officials to reverse that decision to bring the district into compliance with Title IX.

“I couldn’t be happier with the votes of the School Committee and Secondary Schools Building Committee,” said Jennifer Casoli Vant, a founding member of the citizens group.

“Now, once the new high school/middle school project is complete, both the baseball boys and the softball girls of North Reading will have a home field on their high school campus and the town is working together to find a location and to construct a much-needed third big-diamond baseball field for the boys of our town,” she added. “This is the exact outcome for which I was always hoping.”

The new high school is expected to open in September 2014 and the renovated middle school the following September. If everything goes according to schedule, the entire project will be completed in December 2015, including fields and landscaping.

Brenda J. Buote can be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.
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