Note: This article contains graphic content.
The start of the football season is underway for many schools across the United States, and players aren’t the only ones getting ready — cheerleaders have also been practicing.
However, instead of prepping for the big game, cheerleaders at one Colorado high school are being offered counseling services after footage from their cheer camp over the summer has been made public.
As WFAA reports, two cheerleaders at East High School in Denver anonymously sent a cellphone video to the station of their teammate, Ally Wakefield, being forced to do the splits. It’s footage Denver Public Schools reportedly had since the incident occurred earlier in June.
Wakefield, an incoming freshman, was held in a front split position by her teammates and coach, Ozell Williams, despite excruciating pain. Her arms and legs are held down by her teammates while Williams presses down on her shoulders.
Wakefield repeatedly screams “I can’t! I can’t! Please stop!” yet she’s not released from the position and is unable to free herself.Screenshot/9News
According to 9News, Wakefield’s mother sent a letter to the school’s athletic director demanding to know how the school planned on remedying the situation given that her daughter sustained a leg injury as a result of the practice.
Kirsten Wakefield wrote, in part:
I have attached a video of the forced splits she and her other team members were forced to do at cheerleading camp and practices; unless they had a doctor’s note. This is how Ally injured her leg. […]
My husband and I would like to know what the administration is going to do about my daughter’s injury and how it happened.
Wakefield wasn’t alone. Numerous parents reportedly filed complaints against school administrators and Williams. One of Wakefield’s teammates, Anna, quit the cheer team after showing her mother the footage. She, too, was forced into the position (unreleased footage reportedly shows a total of eight cheerleaders crying in pain as they were forced into the splits).
Anna’s mother told 9News:
“I don’t understand why that’s allowed.”
Anna showed her mother the video of her teammate, and the mother said:
“That made me sick to my stomach. […] I don’t know how you could justify that.”
Now that the disturbing footage was released by the local media, Denver police have launched an investigation.
WFAA reports that the East High School’s cheer coach, assistant cheer coach, principal, assistant principal, and Denver Public Schools deputy general counsel have all been placed on leave.
In a statement, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said:
Earlier today, I became aware of an exercise used at cheer practices this summer at East High School. We immediately began taking steps to investigate this issue, and our Department of Safety is supporting Denver Police in this effort. In order to conduct a fair and thorough investigation, we have placed East Principal Andy Mendelsberg, East Assistant Principal Lisa Porter, East Cheer Coach Ozell Williams, East Assistant Cheer Coach Mariah Cladis and DPS Deputy General Counsel Michael Hickman on leave.
This is standard practice in an investigation of this type. It does not imply or prejudge in any way the actions of the individuals or what the investigation might determine. Please know that we will share the results of the investigation as soon as possible.
I want to reiterate in no uncertain terms our commitment to the safety of our students. 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.
While this investigation is ongoing, we are entirely focused on ensuring our students and staff at East are receiving the supports they need. A senior leader at the school, East Assistant Principal Jason Maclin, will serve as interim principal during this time and we are providing additional counseling for our students and families.
With regards to certain videos, I cannot state strongly enough – as the superintendent of the school district and as the father of two high school-aged daughters — that the images and actions depicted are extremely distressing and absolutely contrary to our core values as a public school community.
It was Williams’s first year as cheer coach at the high school. In an interview with 9News, Williams told reporters he “learned that technique growing up,” citing Chicago and New Orleans specifically.
Cameron MacDonald, chapter president of the American Physical Therapy Association of Colorado called the ballistic stretching techniques featured in the video outdated. In an interview with 9News, he said:
“Historically, there was times when quick stretching, ballistic-type stretching was somewhat promoted, but that’s a long time ago. We know that to have a meaningful change in tissue length, you need a slow, deliberative process to allow changes in tissues to occur that can be sustained over time, and you need to follow that up with a well prescribed ongoing program of exercise and flexibility interventions. It takes time.”
Police are investigating after videos showing East High cheerleaders repeatedly forced into splits surfaced. Marshall Zelinger 9News sat down with Cameron MacDonald, an associate professor of physical therapy at Regis University and a member of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) of Colorado, to talk about how stretching works and why learning the splits may not be for every student.
Posted by 9NEWS (KUSA) on Thursday, August 24, 2017
When asked by 9News if every high school girl should be expected to have the same level of flexibility, MacDonald answered: “Absolutely not.”
In 2013, the New York Post called cheerleading the “most dangerous sport for females,” citing research from the Journal of Pediatrics, which found a dramatic increase in emergency room visits by cheerleaders from 4,954 in 1980 to 26,786 in 2007.
ABC News reported that in 2008, there were nearly 30,000 emergency hospital visits, adding that some states don’t recognize cheerleading as a sport, which prevents uniform safety measures and training standards from being implemented.
The investigation into East High School is ongoing.