Editor’s note: This story originally published on Oct. 11, 2015.
Eight years after a civil rights complaint against Springfield Public Schools regarding sporting fields for girls, a tentative resolution has been reached.
The complaint, submitted in August 2007 to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, said the district discriminated against female athletes by failing to provide girls softball teams with facilities that were as good as the boys baseball fields.
It stated while the boys baseball teams were provided on-campus fields at nearly every Springfield high school, the girls softball teams had to use park or church facilities away from high school campuses.
An investigation was launched and a lengthy back-and-forth ensued as the Office of Civil Rights sought information and the school district responded. As the work unfolded, the complaint stayed under the radar and out of the public spotlight.
“It was an ongoing process of how can we best meet the needs of the students and have them be fair and equitable,” said Justin Herrell, executive director of student services. He was brought into the process early on.
Herrell said the need for the high school softball fields had been identified before the complaint was filed. But, between other pressing needs and a lack of funding, the projects had not yet been made a priority.
“Some of the work had been on the back burner,” he said.
There was no indication in the resolution agreement obtained by the News-Leader that there was foot dragging on either side. Asked why it took so long to find a solution, Herrell pointed to the complexity of some of the high school campuses.
By the time the tentative agreement was inked, earlier this year, significant progress had been made. The district had spent nearly $1 million to build girls softball fields at Glendale and Kickapoo high schools.
But, there is still work to be done. In February, the district is required to provide an update on its progress.
Herrell said while it wasn’t fun to go through the formal complaint process, the district ultimately wanted to provide softball facilities for girls that were as good as the baseball facilities for the boys.
“It’s important to us as a district that we do everything we can to make sure all our facilities are up to standard,” he said. “We are glad to get a chance to do it.”
The resolution agreement does not indicate who filed the complaint. District spokeswoman Teresa Bledsoe said she doesn’t believe the district was ever provided with a name. The News-Leader’s attempts to learn the name also failed.
The Office for Civil Rights is tasked with enforcing the federal Title IX law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender. The resolution states the district “expressed an interest in resolving the allegation of this complaint and voluntarily agreed to take the following steps.” Those steps include:
Build fields on the campus of Glendale and Kickapoo high schools for the softball teams to use for practice and home games. They must be equivalent to the facilities provided for baseball at the same school.
To provide facilities for Hillcrest, obtain a lease agreement to use softball facilities on the former campus of Central Bible College.
To provide facilities for Parkview, obtain a lease agreement so the high school team can use the Fassnight Park softball fields for practices and home games.
No changes are required at the landlocked Central. The resolution acknowledges options are limited there, providing no room to add a baseball or softball field.
At Glendale and Kickapoo, where softball fields added last year are already in use, no additional work remains.
Before the fields were added at Glendale and Kickapoo, baseball teams had facilities on campus but the softball teams did not. Both girls teams played home games at the Cooper Complex, which is located five miles from Glendale and seven miles from Kickapoo.
The projects at Hillcrest and Parkview appear to be the most complicated because the district is working with other entities to figure out a long-range solution for the softball fields.
The Parkview baseball team has long had a field on campus. The softball team practiced at nearby Fassnight Park but, until a couple years ago, played home games at Cooper Complex.
However, in late 2014, the school board approved an agreement with the Springfield-Greene County Park Board to use the Fassnight Park Softball Field for Parkview’s practice and home softball games.
As a part of that agreement, the district agreed to make improvements to the field to bring it up to the same quality as the high school’s baseball field.
At Hillcrest, the baseball team has a field on campus. But, the softball team split its time between the Cooper Complex, which is five miles away, or Central Bible College, which is right across the street.
The resolution notes Hillcrest’s use of the field at Central Bible College became complicated when the college merged with Evangel University. The Assemblies of God Church, which operates Evangel, is attempting to sell the Central Bible College campus.
If a sale happens, the district might not be able to continue to use the college’s field. At this point, however, the district is still able to least the field from the church.
Herrell said the challenges at Parkview and Hillcrest are ongoing and the civil rights investigators appear to understand that. “They are trying to give us flexibility,” he said.
A six-page letter by the Office of Civil Rights attorney Cedric Brown states the federal government will continue to monitor progress, in the coming years, to make sure each step outlined in the agreement has been met. In February, the district is required to provide an update on its progress.
“When OCR concludes the district has fully implemented the terms of the agreement, OCR will close the complaint,” Brown wrote. “If the district fails to carry out the agreement, OCR may resume the investigation.”