AUBURN — In response to complaints from New Auburn neighbors, the School Department has cut the number of nights a soccer team can use the Walton School field.
Superintendent Tom Morrill told School Committee members Wednesday night that the Lewiston-Auburn Islamic Center was granted permission to play soccer at the field seven nights a week during the summer and early fall.
Effective Wednesday, the group has been restricted to playing soccer at the field on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights. That may change once school sports begin, Morrill said.
The School Department will continue to look for more playing space acceptable to both the soccer players and the neighbors. “But the area is activity-rich and space-poor,” Morrill said. “There are only so many fields available.”
He praised the soccer players for participating in a healthy activity. “They are engaged with students and youth in our area," Morrill said. "It's a healthy endeavor. There's a great deal of teaching of a variety of skills, team building, character building.”
On Monday night, Walton neighbors complained to the Auburn City Council that the soccer players had taken over the field. Norm McKeone told the council that use of the field by neighborhood families had declined because dozens of Somalis play soccer at the field. McKeone said he was concerned about balls hitting cars and homes and speeding cars. He also said he was threatened when he yelled at one of the men to slow down.
Police Chief Phil Crowell said Monday that officers have responded to some complaints, but most calls turned out to be unfounded.
On Wednesday night, two Walton School neighbors spoke to the School Committee about the controversy.
June Vaillancourt complained about "a lack of sportsmanship and a lack of respect” by the players. The group is there “seven nights a week. They take the field over.” She described it as dangerous for those walking on or near the field.
“We're not welcome. Balls are flying into people's homes and cars,” Vaillancourt said. She no longer feels safe walking on the path and now walks at Bates College, she said. She asked that a code of conduct be developed.
Chris Lhommedieu gave an opposite perspective.
Lhommedieu said his son came home one night excited that a new group was playing soccer. He bought his son, 13, some cleats. His son started playing with the team.
“They welcomed him in with open arms. I went down and watched,” Lhommedieu said. “What I observed was a bunch of folks playing soccer. They were taking up a third of the field on one end of it. It was respectable.”
He said his son had fun playing soccer. “I'm glad they're there. They're doing something other people can join in.”
The team, coached by Abdullahi Abdi of Lewiston, a manager of the 1996 Somali Olympic soccer team in Atlanta, was playing at the field Tuesday night. According to a Sun Journal photographer, they engaged in typical team chatter but were not loud. They took up half of the field. No one was using the other end of the field. Abdi told the photographer he had spoken to the superintendent about the situation.
When a Sun Journal reporter went to the field at 6 p.m. Wednesday, no one was there. A neighbor said the team showed up later. Efforts to reach Abdi were not successful.
In a March 28 Sun Journal story, Abdi was praised for his volunteer work of supervising a soccer league that plays in Lewiston and Portland. His players credited him with caring about kids.