Fighting inequality on the softball field in Batavia - The Buffalo News
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Fighting inequality on the softball field in Batavia

At any given home game during the spring, you can find Batavia’s varsity baseball team playing in Dwyer Stadium, a $3 million, 2,200-seat minor league facility.

For the high school boys who make up the team, it’s an opportunity to compete in a professional venue chock full of big-league amenities. There are the covered dugouts, bullpens, lighting for night games and even an electronic scoreboard.

Just down the street, Batavia’s varsity softball team, until recently, played its games in a far different environment.

There was no scoreboard for the girls and no lighting for night games. There was, however, a grass diamond and gravel infield with a reputation for balls bouncing out of play. Girls say the field got so bad, it became risky to slide.

Fed up with the poor playing conditions and what they saw as an insulting inequity, three teenage girls and their families sued the Batavia schools in federal court.

And won.

“We finally said, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” said Elizabeth Myers, 18, a senior catcher and third baseman on the team.

With two others girls, including her younger sister, Rebecca, Myers filed a class-action lawsuit last year accusing the district of discriminating against all current and future Batavia softball players.

The suit, rooted in Title IX, the civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, also accused school officials of ignoring the girls’ requests for improvements and at least one written notification that the varsity field was a hazard.

“It was not a favorite place to play,” Elizabeth said.

A year later, there’s a new modified softball field, and work is underway on major improvements to the varsity and junior varsity diamonds.

The improvements are outlined in a consent decree that both sides agreed to as part of a mediated settlement of the girls’ lawsuit. The agreement, finalized in the past few weeks, also sets out deadlines for completing the work.

“Most kids just try to get through high school,” said Kristin M. Small, a lawyer at the Empire Justice Center, the Rochester public interest firm that handled the suit. “I just think it’s very brave for these girls to stand up and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t right.’ ”

No one disputes the obvious disparity in the facilities used by Batavia’s high school baseball and softball players, or the need to remedy that inequity.

School officials acknowledge that Dwyer Stadium, home of the minor league Batavia Muckdogs, presents a challenge in ensuring that girl softball players have the same type of high-quality facility.

But they’re trying, school officials claim, and that is why they’re quick to downplay the impact of the girls’ lawsuit.

‘We are a bit dismayed’

In a statement, School Superintendent Christopher J. Dailey said the district always has been committed to girls’ athletics but was hamstrung by the public’s reluctance to approve funding for the fields.

“We are a bit dismayed by the characterization of this situation,” Dailey said. “As a district, we cannot proceed with capital projects of this nature without voter approval.”

Dailey claims the School Board signed off on the projects as part of a new capital improvement plan approved in February of last year, more than a month before the girls filed their lawsuit in Buffalo federal court.

Voters approved the plan in May, but by then, the girls had filed the suit.

“I would have preferred if they had come to me with their concerns,” Dailey said. “We knew we had to do improvements.”

The district never admitted guilt in the discrimination case, and Dailey claims the girls never brought their grievances to him or anyone else with Title IX authority. And yet, in the end, the district agreed to improvements at all three fields.

Dailey insists the consent decree is about money, not guilt or innocence. He said the district made a conscious decision to settle because of the potential costs associated with a two- or three-year legal battle.

He also was quick to note that the district’s capital plan includes a series of major improvements not anticipated in the lawsuit, most notably new dugouts, scoreboard and batting cages. In the end, the district will spend about $175,000 on the three softball fields.

“We know we do great things for the students of this district, whether it’s academically, musically or athletically, and we’ll continue to do those things,” Dailey said.

In Small’s eyes, the agreement is a clear acknowledgement by the district that a serious inequity existed in its athletic programs. She also thinks the girls’ push for a formal settlement was due in part to years of broken promises.

“There’s a history here,” she said. “Some of the parents of players will tell you that multiple requests were made over the years, and they all fell on deaf ears.”

James Myers, Elizabeth’s father, is one of those parents who thinks the improvements would have been put off again if not for the lawsuit. Kimberly Walsh, a 2013 Batavia graduate and former softball player, also is a plaintiff in the suit.

Myers pointed to a similar School Board plan in 2011 that voters rejected. “There was always money for the boys’ fields,” he said. “But everything the girls wanted was contingent on budgets passing.”

Lawsuit seen as leverage

Elizabeth Myers always knew that, if her lawsuit succeeded, her sister, Rebecca, would be the one to benefit.

“I knew I would never see the improvements,” said the high school senior.

And yet, she and her family pressed the fight, even after voters set aside money for the three softball fields.

Skeptical that the district would actually follow through, they saw their lawsuit as leverage in getting the district to abide by its promises. They also saw the suit as a remedy to years of discrimination, intentional or not.

“I’m actually really, really excited,” said Rebecca, a 15-year-old sophomore who pitches and plays outfield. “It will be nice to play on a really nice softball field.”

There was a time, though, when Rebecca and Elizabeth had second thoughts. Not all their friends at school understood what they were doing or why, and Elizabeth said the commentary on Facebook and Twitter was often brutal. “It got better later, but not in the beginning,” she said. “It was rough at first.”

Eventually, most of her close friends came around, and even a few of the boys in her class expressed support, especially after seeing firsthand the condition of their fields.

“I’m incredibly proud of them,” said James Myers. “They took the initiative and, even when they experienced the backlash, they stuck it out.”

Kristin Small thinks the girls’ impact could extend far beyond Batavia. She hopes school districts across the state will take notice of the settlement and, if necessary, follow suit.

She also thinks the suit helps drive home the importance of athletics in high school and why both girls and boys should have the same opportunities to play sports.

“I think it serves as a reminder,” Small said. “People think about Title IX and think it’s over. I’m hoping other districts will look at this case and realize it’s not over."


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