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East Meadow student athletes push district to reconsider turf fields

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Some student athletes in the East Meadow School District claim that when they hit the field — in their case, natural grass — they are at a distinct disadvantage. All of the district fields are grass, which students have said impedes their performance.

Lauren Stea, an eighth-grade lacrosse player and cheerleader at East Meadow High School, said the school’s field is covered with weeds, divots and small hills. She and her cheer teammates, she said, have to concentrate to avoid rolling an ankle or losing their balance as they complete a stunt.

When athletes compete on other districts’ artificial-turf fields, she added, “It’s a disadvantage to us, because we’re not used to playing on turf.”

Lauren’s sister Emily, a junior and the captain of the varsity cheerleading squad, agreed, saying, “It’s so hard to play a sport when the ground isn’t level.”

Both girls spoke at a public forum on June 3, when residents were invited to comment on whether they prefer natural grass or synthetic turf. The district is renovating its fields as part of a $58.8 million joint school and library bond that voters passed in March of 2017. The Leon J. Campo Salisbury Center, the district’s hub, which is used by the W.T. Clarke middle and high schools, had a new natural-grass field installed last summer. East Meadow High and Woodland Middle School are scheduled to get new fields next year.

The district’s current plan, laid out in the bond, is for all those fields to be natural grass. If officials decide to use synthetic fields instead, they would need to change the bond and bring it to vote. Before making such a decision, the district is asking community members for their feedback to determine the most popular option.

“It’s really not about us, it’s about everyone in the community and what they want,” said Kristi Detor, the district’s director of physical education, health and athletics. “This forum is to bring them together so they could express their feelings and provide us with feedback.”

Attendees filled out surveys asking them to consider the positives and negatives of both options, where they might want synthetic-turf fields and whether they would opt for natural grass if the fields were better maintained. Superintendent Kenneth Card said that the district and the Board of Education would review residents’ answers and share their findings with the public before making a decision.

“We tried to be fair and put all the information out there to frame the debate,” said Patrick Pizzo, assistant superintendent for business and finance, who created a PowerPoint presentation detailing the district’s research into both options. His slideshow cited the health concerns associated with synthetic-turf fields, including the arsenic, lead, mercury and other hazardous chemicals found in the recycled tires used to create turf’s crumb-rubber bedding.

Many studies have confirmed these findings, including one conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in September 2017. The NCBI concluded, however, that there is “little risk to [athletes] and children, but some risk to installation workers” and that finding conclusive evidence of the turf’s effects on people could take decades.

Another study, conducted by the Port Washington-based nonprofit Grassroots Environmental Education, stated, “Without long-term field testing, no one is in a position to say the exposure is harmless, particularly for children.”

But parents said that their children are already exposed to the turf when they play at other schools. “These kids go from district to district, playing on their turf fields,” said Helen Meittinis, president of the Community Association of Stewart Avenue. “It’s not like you’re keeping them safe when every other school uses them.”

Pizzo’s presentation highlighted other claims about turf fields, including that they absorb more heat than natural grass and can reach extreme temperatures on hot days; that bodily fluids do not naturally wash away, as they do in the soil of a natural field; and that sliding players can sustain “turf burns.”

At the forum, however, student countered that they have been injured playing on the uneven surfaces of grass fields, some even breaking bones and spraining ankles. During a comment period, members of the East Meadow High School softball team were the first to address the gathering. “We want to be proud of the field we play on,” said Amanda Thompson, speaking on behalf of her team. “Right now, we’re not.”

One parent said that a turf field is “just a matter of town pride,” and others chimed in, saying that the district is sometimes called “East Ghetto” by other teams because games have had to be canceled after rains have left muddy fields unplayable.

“Our athletes are at a disadvantage, and we have such a great athletic program, the kids in the district deserve fields to match,” said Kristin Stea, Lauren’s mother, who attended the forum with her husband Peter, a board member of the East Meadow Parent Athletic Committee.

The group has long advocated for synthetic-turf fields at the high school, and collected 640 signatures on a petition on Change.org called “EMPAC and the East Meadow Community for Synthetic Turf for a Multi Use Field at EMHS.”

“This is the first time they’ve having a forum like this and [are] listening to us,” Stea said. “We’re having our voices heard, and that’s what we want right now.”