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Pinellas schools say cheerleading uniforms are dress code violations

Published Aug. 29, 2013

In a perfect world, every father would think his daughter is beautiful. David Fraser agrees. "Yeah, but she's actually beautiful," he says of his own daughter, 15-year-old Jeana. "I mean, she looks like a cheerleader."

Jeana is a cheerleader. A sophomore, she wears her uniform to Countryside High School on game days along with the rest of the squad. Or she did until Friday, when the school decided its own uniform was against the dress code.

Several Pinellas County schools are restricting or banning their own cheerleading uniforms during classroom hours amid a broader crackdown on the student dress code. In past years, administrators turned a blind eye during football season to the cheerleaders' sleeveless uniforms with short skirts.

But this year, as Pinellas high schools adopt stricter dress codes or simply step up enforcement, the uniforms aren't flying during the school day. Not all parents are pleased.

"If it's an approved school uniform — which it was approved, by the administration, years ago — why is it out of dress code?" asked Christine Johnson, whose daughter is a junior on Countryside's varsity squad. "And why can they wear it in front of thousands of people at a football field if they can't wear it on game day at school?"

Fraser said his daughter was upset to learn that her uniform was "suddenly too vulgar."

"She takes it very seriously," he said. "She likes the uniform. She's proud to be a cheerleader."

Countryside principal Gary Schlereth said he is working with the cheerleading team to find a compromise. Before the school year started, his administration asked the girls to order special jackets to cover their arms. The issue of the skirts' length "really came to light" on the day of Countryside's first football game on Friday, Schlereth said.

Letting the girls wear their uniforms creates a double standard, he said. The district's dress code requires that shirts have sleeves and skirts fall to at least mid-thigh.

"A parent looks at their son or daughter getting 'dress coded' for wearing something short, then they look at the cheerleading uniform and they say, 'What about that?' " Schlereth said.

While he explained away the uniforms as "spirit wear" in the past, Schlereth felt it wasn't fair anymore.

Countryside wasn't the only high school to start cracking down on cheerleading uniforms. This year at Northeast and Gibbs, cheerleaders are allowed to wear their tops to school only if they wear T-shirts under them. Their skirts aren't allowed. Gibbs cheerleaders wear jeans to class, then change for the football game.

"It's appropriate for them when doing that activity, but a school has another purpose, and that's academics," Gibbs principal Stephanie Adkinson said.

Over at Northeast, principal Kevin Hendrick put it bluntly: "The skirts were just too short."

St. Petersburg High School's cheerleaders have multiple sets of skirts. As of this year, they can only wear the longer skirt during class-time, along with a jacket over the top, assistant principal Darlene Lebo said.

At Boca Ciega, cheerleaders can wear their uniforms to class only if they wear clothes under them. Assistant principal Kathy Van Dora predicted the team would end up wearing their "warm-up pants" or sweatpants, with a jacket over the top or shirt underneath it.

Lakewood High hasn't had a regular season football game yet, but principal Robert Vicari said the cheerleading uniforms would not be allowed in school on game days anymore.

It hadn't occurred to Vicari before a Tampa Bay Times reporter called Monday. The cheerleading coach hadn't asked, he said. He would be sure to let the team know.

As Countryside tries to find a compromise with its cheerleaders, Schlereth is considering ordering track pants for the girls. Meanwhile, the cheerleading coach told some parents they could order Velcro attachments to lengthen the skirts. Fraser said that does little for him or his daughter.

"In my opinion, adding some sort of a tear-away Velcro attachment to their skirts while at school is not a solution, or even a compromise. It's just a weird thing to do."

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

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