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Tryouts no cause for cheer at schools

Published Oct. 18, 2005

The letter came from MacFarlane, Ferguson, Allison & Kelly, Tampa's oldest law firm. It alleged unfair treatment, violation of due process and violation of public regulations. The topic: cheerleader tryouts.

Leonor Campoamor, 17, said a biased panel of judges unfairly cut her during April tryouts for a 15-member cheerleading squad at Brandon High School.

"These judges go out together and talk about the students" instead of judging strictly by performance, said Leonor's mother, Virginia Campoamor. She had the law firm file a grievance with the Hillsborough County School Board because "somebody had to."

The Campoamor case illustrates how intense cheerleading competition has grown and what a quagmire it is becoming for county school officials.

"We're putting too much pressure on youngsters who have trained for five or six years and then spend five minutes trying out before a panel of judges," Walter Sickles, Hillsborough's school superintendent, said. "When they don't get selected, they feel like failures."

The problem extends to

marching band and dance tryouts, officials said. It is especially hard on minority students, who often cannot afford private lessons.

At Bloomingdale High School this spring, black students alleged racial discrimination after only one of 17 blacks who tried out passed an audition for the Crimson Dolls dance squad.

Jim Copeland, county supervisor of secondary music, said he often sees auditions turn ugly. "I know it's my job, but I cringe when I think about them," he said.

One parent tried to convince Copeland that a principal "fixed" a dance tryout by adjusting his glasses when he wanted the judges to choose a girl.

Another parent, angry that a Plant City High School girl had been edged by a student who transferred from Lakeland, suggested passing a rule that all baton twirlers at Plant City High must be born in Plant City.

"I respect these parents," Copeland said. "They love their kids. But you can see where maybe they don't have the thing in perspective."

That may be because cheerleaders are "not just cute little girls in short skirts any more," said Donna Stewart, cheerleading coach at Bloomingdale High and a former cheerleader.

They lift weights, compete in televised tournaments, hone their skills at special summer camps and sometimes hire private coaches to help improve their chances of being accepted on the squad.

Cheerleading is popular with parents because it keeps their teen-agers busy after school. "There's a lot more control," said Judith Bryan, coach at Brandon High.

And there is the ego trip. "It's a way to be out there and really show your school spirit," said Lori Norton, a Brandon High cheerleader. But the tryouts are "nerve-wracking," she said.

In response to the conflicts at Brandon and Bloomingdale, a committee of school principals is trying to improve the tryout system. Their recommendations are expected by February.

Some officials suggest treating cheerleading like a sports program and allowing the coach to ease students on and off the squad after a period of training.

"We're making a lot of problems for ourselves by bringing in a lot of people from the outside," Copeland said. "We've legalized ourselves to the point where we've taken out the humanity and the trust."

A strict set of county rules requires schools to use approved judges who assess the students' appearance, projection, jumps, tumbling skills and other abilities on standardized score sheets. No more than two judges can return to the school two years in a row. The idea is to ensure the judges are objective, so no one feels cheated.

That was not the case for Leonor Campoamor.

Leonor, who transferred from Armwood High School, tried out for Brandon's squad because she considered it "the best squad anywhere."

Leonor became a cheerleader in the eighth grade. "It's real energetic, it's good exercise, you keep in shape and you get to do a lot of fun things," she said.

She practiced for the Brandon tryouts with a private trainer. She auditioned April 13 but did not make the squad.

After the tryouts, Leonor's trainer said she overheard a judge mention that Bryan, the school coach, did not want Leonor on the team. There was talk Leonor had a poor attendance record at Armwood.

The Campoamors say Leonor had mononucleosis, a legitimate reason to miss school. But they suspect Bryan pressured the judges to reject Leonor.

Bryan declined to discuss the grievance. Much of the debate concerned whether the judges discussed Leonor before or after the audition.

The Campoamors could not prove that anything said about Leonor affected her tryout score.

School officials admitted they made a mistake by having more than two judges return for two years in a row.

As a compromise, Brandon High agreed to open up its cheerleading squad to 11 more girls who would serve as backups to the 15-member squad. Six signed up and are training.

But the Campoamors are not satisfied.

"These judges should have known the rules," Mrs. Campoamor said.

The Campoamors do not consider their case the least bit frivolous. They think a principle should be upheld: that even high school students should not have to tolerate impropriety from public officials, especially when it interferes with their rights.

But Leonor, who no longer wants to be a cheerleader, agrees. "If it was fair, fine," she said of the system. "But it was all fixed, and I don't want anything to do with it."

School officials, meanwhile, are watching the Brandon High experiment. If it succeeds, they said they might apply it to other schools.

Bryan, the embattled coach, said she likes the new system. With six alternate cheerleaders, she has extra girls who can fill in when someone is sick or injured.

"It always breaks your heart when you have to have a cutoff of any kind," Bryan said. "If we can expand like this, we don't have to break so many hearts."