Several anonymous videos sent to local media have prompted public outrage and a police investigation over alleged treatment of high school cheerleaders in Denver.
Photo via screengrab of the anonymous video.
Denver police have launched an investigation after a number of disturbing videos surfaced showing high school cheerleaders being painfully forced into splits during cheer camp. Five people, including East High School's cheer coach, assistant cheer coach, high school principal, assistant principal, and Denver Public Schools deputy general counsel have been placed on leave, reported NBC affiliate KUSA.
A 24-second clip that's been made public by the media outlet—one of several sent anonymously to KUSA—features prominently a blonde teenager identified as freshman Ally Wakefield. Her face is scrunched up in pain, and she repeatedly begs, breathlessly, "please stop" nine times before her teammates let go of her arms and legs, and an adult lifts her up and helps her to lay on her side.
The adult in the video, KUSA reports, is coach Ozell Williams. "This year would have been his first year coaching for the East High School cheer team," the outlet noted, "but he was placed on leave during the first week of school." When reporters reached Williams by phone, he told them that he'd learned that technique growing up, and deferred any more commentary to the school's athletic director.
According to parents KUSA spoke with, school officials were made aware of these incidents on June 15, but did not officially launch an investigation until yesterday. In an email sent to the school's athletic director, Kirsten Wakefield, Ally's mother, attached a copy of the video and wrote that her daughter's leg had been injured from these exercises.
"This is a grown man, pushing my 13-year-old girl so hard against her will while she's crying and screaming for him to stop, that he's ripping tissues in her body," Wakefield told KUSA.
Last night, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg issued a statement about the investigation. In part, he wrote, "We absolutely prohibit any practices that place our students' physical and mental health in jeopardy. We do not and will not allow any situation in which a student is forced to perform an activity or exercise beyond the point at which they express their desire to stop."
The USA National Cheer Safety Council also released a statement today, noting that members had viewed the video. "The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (AACCA) does not condone the coach's actions, and rejects them to the fullest extent," they said. "Stretching should never be taken to the level of causing pain. Of even more concern is failure to act when it is clear that a cheerleader is in extreme pain and begging to stop."
Kimberly Archie is the founder of the National Cheer Safety Foundation. We asked her if the technique seen in the videos is common. "I don't want to say it's something all coaches do or this is some kind of protocol," she tells Broadly. "Am I shocked that this guy did this or that coaches would go to the lengths of pushing, not just literally but figuratively too, for kids to do more than what they're able to do? No, it doesn't surprise me."
She adds: "Is this what coaches are supposed to be doing? No."
Archie argues that cheerleading and other youth sports are very unregulated, which can result in unsafe practices. For almost a decade, the NCSF has been lobbying for the creation of "an independent governing body that has kids' best interests at heart," Archie says, pointing to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as an example. "There is not a system in place. You wouldn't see this in the workplace as often as you do in sports because you have OSHA; you have liability."
"There is no excuse for what that video shows," she continues. "And it's not some kid being a crybaby or a snowflake or whatever the new buzzwords are. America loves sports, but we need to love kids just as much … they're our future."