The artificial turf playing field at Richard Montgomery High School underwent maintenance in the fall following complaints that athletes received deep, recurring lacerations during practices and games.
After the installation contractor made an inspection of the Rockville school’s field, crews reduced the level of infill and base mixture to allow greater movement of the turf’s fibers, according to a memo sent by Superintendent Jack Smith to the school board. The date of maintenance was not disclosed.
No other similar injuries have been reported at eight other schools with artificial turf fields and it is unclear how many injuries were reported at Richard Montgomery.
A youth flag football tournament scheduled during the maintenance work was moved to Gaithersburg High School, according to a Nov. 27 post on the organization’s website, which has since been removed.
In his memo, Smith said school district will monitor the changes made at the field “and determine next steps that may be appropriate.” The memo did not disclose how much the maintenance cost, but a frequently asked questions document on the school district website says annual maintenance at each artificial turf totals about $10,000.
The Richard Montgomery field was installed in 2008 at an estimated cost of $1 million. At the time, FieldTurf, the contractor, was using a plastic fiber known as Duraspine, and in 2011, FieldTurf sued the Chinese company, TenCate, that made the grass fibers for many of its Duraspine fields because FieldTurf found the fibers withered away under ultraviolet light, causing them to break off, which had been reported at Richard Montgomery’s field. In 2016, the field failed a firmness test.
The school board awarded a $562,721 contract to Sprinturf LLC for the replacement of the turf in June and the field reopened in August.
During a public hearing in November about the school district’s capital improvements program, Molly Winchenbach, a freshman soccer player at Richard Montgomery, told the school board the turf field was responsible for a rise in sports injuries.
“I’m not talking about your average turf burn, I’m talking about skin lacerations so severe they bleed so that players have to be taken out of the game to get treated by the athletic trainer,” Winchenbach wrote in prepared testimony. “I’m talking about gashes so deep they remain open wounds for months because playing on the turf reopens them at every practice.”
Representatives from Sprinturf did not respond to requests for comment.
The artificial turf at Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School includes the same materials as Richard Montgomery’s.
Winchenbach said Whitman’s field was notably “more cushiony” than their “sandpaper” home field. The fields are both filled with a material called “clinoptilolite zeolite,” a mineral that comes from a rock found in Nevada, according to school district documents.
“As athletes, we like to think of ourselves as having a pretty high pain tolerance after withstanding lots of sports injuries, but having to face this turf every day that you know is going to rip up your skin when you fall on it is just soul crushing,” Winchenbach wrote. “These artificial turf fields are supposed to enhance play for the athletes, not leave lasting scars.”
Artificial turf fields are intended to provide equity in playing fields among schools, allow “safe, year-round use under most weather conditions,” require less maintenance and rescheduling disruptions, the school district says on its website.
In addition to Richard Montgomery and Walt Whitman, Montgomery Blair High, Albert Einstein High, Gaithersburg High, Walter Johnson High, Paint Branch High, Thomas S. Wootton High and Somerset Elementary all have artificial turf fields, according to the school district website.
A school district document lists maintenance visits by Sprinturf in the 2018-2019 school year, many of which describe tree debris on fields, but no major issues. Repairs completed include replacement of a small square of field, gluing seams, removing metal and adding infill.
No similar reports were listed for Albert Einstein, Richard Montgomery or Walt Whitman.
The school board approved funding in June for installation of artificial turf at Julius West Middle School and Albert Einstein High School, a move that was challenged by a group of citizens that called the approval “arbitrary, unreasonable and illegal.”
“The decision was contrary to sound educational policy and is an abuse of discretionary powers,” the group wrote in an appeal of the decision to the state Board of Education. “A reasonable mind could not have reasonably reached the decision reached by the Local Board.”
In October, the state dismissed the appeal, saying the appellants did not highlight illegalities in the construction contract awarded, which falls under its jurisdiction.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at Caitlynn.Peetz@bethesdamagazine.com
This story has been updated to reflect new information provided by Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Derek Turner, who claims maintenance at the field was completed in about three hours and the field was not closed. Turner also disputes the youth sport organization’s claim that the field was closed for safety reasons. He said there was a scheduling conflict.