High School Sports

After A.C. Flora field issues, Richland 1 vows to inspect all artificial turf fields

From last year’s Class 4A playoff soccer match between Dreher and AC Flora
From last year’s Class 4A playoff soccer match between Dreher and AC Flora

If Erica Zippel had fallen one or two more times on A.C. Flora’s soccer field, she may have torn her ACL, her doctor told her.

But Zippel, a varsity soccer player for Blythewood High School, was lucky — in a way — because she walked away from the March 23 game at A.C. Flora with just a sprained ACL, which will keep her out for the rest of her senior season but won’t require reconstructive knee surgery, she told The State.

“The turf, it wasn’t like normal turf. It was really slippery,” Zippel said. “There were several times during the game where I slipped. After the game I couldn’t walk.”

“Something happened on that field,” Zippel said of her non-contact injury.

The district later closed that field — for the second time this year — because of safety concerns. And unlike the last time the field reopened in March, the district is promising a full, third-party inspection before reopening it, district officials said at a Tuesday school board meeting.

“There will be an inspection of the A.C. Flora field as well as the other fields in the district to determine the status,” said board Chair Jamie Devine. “Based on the report and the info we get we will make a determination whether or not that field can be opened temporarily, in safe condition, or not.”

This will be the first time the field has been inspected, despite its being closed after previous issues with flooding and an apparent air bubble underneath the field. When the field was reopened in March, the district added more “infill” — the artificial material than anchors the field, Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said.

When the field was completed in 2017, “We did not have the foresight to have a third-party check,” said Raymond Perkins, the district’s director of facility services. “We reviewed it, analyzed it and thought it was a superior project.”

Parents of A.C. Flora students spoke up at the Tuesday meeting, voicing frustration both with the technical issues with the field and what they believe to be a lack of transparency from the district about the field.

“I have been met over the past couple months with a culture of secrecy,” said Flynn Bowie, the parent of an A.C. Flora student. “It’s not helping anyone.”

Bowie and other parents have begun their own investigating, using the state’s Freedom of Information Act to request contracts, reports, correspondence and other documents. However, Bowie accused the district of violating state law in withholding public records longer than the allowed.

When Beatrice King, a school board member who represents A.C. Flora’s portion of the district, pressed Perkins on details of the field, Devine and the district’s attorney, Susan Williams, interrupted her and said the questioning could involve legal matters.

King persisted, saying the information she was asking for was public record, but eventually Devine led the board in a successful vote to enter executive session. Executive session is where public officials can meet in secret, but not vote.

“This is a two-way street, and when parents come to us with concerns we have to address that,” King said before she was cut off. “I’m not proud of what has happened over the last two years on the A.C. Flora field.”

The field was installed by Illinois-based company FirstForm, which did not reply to a prior request seeking comment.

As board members met in secret, several audience members jeered the board for meeting behind closed doors just an hour after Witherspoon received the “administrator of the year” award from the South Carolina Chapter of National School Public Relations Association, where the board was commended for its efforts to inform the public.

“Typical,” Bowie said. “Every time something gets hot they go into executive session.”

After the executive session, which lasted about 20 minutes, the board said it could not discuss details about the field because of legal issues.

Assuming the field doesn’t reopen before the end of the season, A.C. Flora’s lacrosse team will play home games at Eau Claire High School. The soccer team will play home games at Columbia High, with the exception of the Dreher game, which will be at Memorial Stadium, district spokeswoman Karen York said in an email.