Her former players, her current students, describe her as one of those teachers and coaches you remember above the rest, the one who seemed to genuinely hear you or help you as you stumbled through adolescence, encouraging you one minute or rolling their eyes and telling you to cut the crap the next. Nancy Cole is 54 years old, she's been at Centereach High School since it opened in 1970, yet she still talks warmly about how "neat" it was to be a young, just-graduated teacher who was asked to help pick out Centereach' s mascot and school colors.
She's the only female Centereach teacher to whom students have dedicated the yearbook twice. To this day, her physical education office is one of those places kids gravitate to and fill with happy chatter. Inside, Cole has hung a photograph of all 31 field hockey teams she has coached. Similar photos decorate the walls of her den at home.
Over the years, Cole's field hockey teams have won four state titles and churned out an impressive list of 45 college scholarship winners, seven college All-Americans, five high school All-Americans and even an Olympian, Tracey Fuchs.
Yet by the time Cole took medical leave last fall for disc surgery she could no longer put off, she says she had gotten to the point where she wasn't sure if the strange things going on around her at Centereach were a coincidence, a textbook case of harassment, or just proof positive that "I was going crazy," Cole says. She forces a laugh.
But some parents, athletes and colleagues have followed Cole's case since she filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education' s Office of Civil Rights on May 27, 2000, asking that the Middle Country Central School District give Centereach High's girl athletes a team room on par with the boys' facility. And they say they know the answer.
Cole says she has been shunned, punished and provoked. In the 13 months since Cole filed her complaint with the OCR, the issue of the team room is not just about a team room at all, but all it symbolically and pragmatically represents. Cole simply wanted to make sure girls at her school are treated just as well as the boys. But her story also has become a nuanced case study about the feelings that get conjured up when boys and girls, grown men and women, are pushed to decide what constitutes "equality" in this supposed era of enlightenment for everyone involved in sports.
One of the more interesting things about the stark reactions Cole' s case has evoked is you would think there's not much room for interpretation. Cole made one very specific request: to make the girls' 1,040-square-foot team room facility comparable or equal to the 2,929-square-foot facility the boys have enjoyed for 30 years.
Her request required the boys program to give up nothing.
The disparity between the two existing team rooms can be measured in cold, hard facts: square footage, counting showerheads and lockers and so on.
Yet, said parent Lynn Peras, whose daughter Shanna plays for Cole: "It's almost been like, 'OK, you dare to bring this Title IX subject up, you know what? You're gonna pay.' "
Until this school year, Cole was the only female teacher on Centereach' s physical education staff for 18 years, and she often has felt duty- bound to urge the school district administration to treat the girls' athletic program the same as the boys'. Along the way, she would sometimes remind her supervisors they needed to comply with the requirements of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that prohibits gender discrimination at educational institutions receiving federal funds. And the district, once nudged, usually responded in time.
During the 1973-74 school year, Cole was involved in the successful effort to get the district's girls team coaches' pay raised from $264 to $874 a season, same as the boys team coaches made.
In 1980, Cole persuaded Centereach to convert a storage area into a girls "team room" that would be used like the space the boys teams have to dress, shower, store equipment and hold team meetings apart from the regular school locker room.
Beginning in 1996, Cole and then-tennis coach Donna Cooke began a detailed study of the district's athletic department books and successfully lobbied the district to add girls lacrosse, soccer and ninth-grade basketball teams, which it did by 1998.
Cooke, now a Centereach guidance counselor, said, "We felt really good about what we were able to get done."
The Middle Country district currently does a fine job of providing sports participation opportunities for girls and boys in near equal numbers.
For the 2001-02 school year, there will be exactly 31 boys varsity and JV teams and exactly 31 girls varsity and JV teams. Of the district's 1,187 ninth- to 12th-graders who competed on varsity and JV teams in 1999-2000, 679 were boys, 508 were girls.
But as the girls' athletic program grew, Cole began urging the district by the early 1990s to expand and upgrade Centereach's girls team room. It just never got done. Cole and Cooke revisited the issue beginning in 1996. Two years later, there appeared to be progress. In a May 27, 1998, memo to Cole from assistant superintendent Richard Herman, he wrote: "The first priority for the next school year will be the girls team room at CHS."
Again, nothing happened. Again, Cole let it lie.
But when Middle Country called faculty meetings at each district school last April to detail the $32.9-million bond issue the district was putting before voters June 13, 2000, Cole, who is now just a year from taking voluntary retirement, said: "I thought this is the perfect opportunity to bring up the team room again. The difference is just so blatant. I thought if I didn't do this for the girls, nobody would. I had nothing to gain personally. It's just the right thing to do."
Even now, the odd thing is most everyone involved agrees that Cole's request was reasonable.
"It is not an up-to-date, decent facility at this time," said Middle Country assistant superintendent Nan O'Connor-Roys, who replaced Herman in overseeing physical education and athletics.
"It is a very inadequate facility, and far inferior to what the boys have," said Comsewogue athletic director Montgomery Granger, Centereach' s athletic director from 1999-2000.
"If I were a [girls] coach, I would not have been happy with that team room for my kids. It was small; it was cramped," said Centereach football coach Mike Kazaks, who finished a three-year term as the district's Board of Education president last July.
So what explains everything that has happened since? Why did Cole, after writing two more letters to the district administration last spring and getting one reply-a note saying engineers would soon be touring the building- feel her only recourse was to file a Title IX complaint, which she had warned the district she was prepared to do?
And why have so many of the people involved been left with raw feelings?
Why are Cole and others convinced she has been shunned and frozen out by the same Centereach colleagues with whom she used to banter easily? Why was she suddenly summoned to the school's administrative office and told to bring a union representative after a discussion with a guidance counselor about rescheduling a student Cole had for four straight class periods? Why did Middle Country athletic director Tony Perna suddenly bark at Cole, "What do I have to do, write you up for insubordination?" one day last fall when he found Cole's field hockey team practicing in the school's main gym, something she had standing permission to do on rainy days for years?
If Kazaks indeed does support Cole's stance to earn Centereach' s girls equal treatment, why then did he leapfrog the administration last September and, he confirms, fire off a letter critical of Cole to former colleagues at the district Board of Education, unbeknownst to Cole, after he learned Perna might let the field hockey team play its season opener on the football field because the field hockey team's just-resodded turf wasn't quite ready?
A football coach who knows Kazaks' reasoning said Kazaks "just got tired of Nancy getting her way every time she opens her mouth."
Why did Tony Quitoni, Cole's physical education department chairman, a man who contributes to her job evaluations, suddenly start questioning her professionalism in front of her students? "He'd say things that just aren't true: 'You don't even care if they cut class...You don't even know their names,'" Cole recalled. Why would Quitoni, an assistant football coach and boys lacrosse head coach at Centereach, tell two members of the district' s sports booster club at a school open house last fall, "If Nancy doesn't want to be a team player, we won't treat her like one"?
"Tony said that," said booster club president Pat Barbieri, whose daughter Colleen is Centereach's current field hockey star, "then Tony looked right at me and smiled and said, 'This whole Title IX thing. You know.' "
Taken alone, none of the incidents seemed grossly antagonistic. But the more they piled up, the more Cole saw a pattern. And it wore on her.
Middle Country officials declined to allow district personnel to comment for this story except O'Connor-Roys and a district lawyer. They said they were worried Cole would sue. Attempts to reach Perna and Quitoni for comment through the school district were met with this reply from district spokeswoman Judy White: "The Middle Country Central School District has not been found to be out of compliance with Title IX. It is the policy of the Middle Country School District that all personnel matters are kept strictly confidential."