‘Very toxic environment.’ Parents of Fayette high school cheerleaders allege discrimination
Parents of some cheerleaders at Frederick Douglass and Henry Clay high schools have enlisted the help of the local NAACP chapter in hopes of addressing concerns about how Black members of the schools’ cheerleading squads have been treated.
The parents have expressed concerns about how their children have been treated by coaches and other cheerleaders at multiple Lexington schools. After the local NAACP chapter released a statement on the issue, Fayette County Public Schools said it would investigate.
Renee Wright said her daughter, a freshman at Frederick Douglass High School, tried out for cheerleading last May and made the varsity squad.
Soon after training began, Wright said, “I started noticing there was segregation among the team.”
She said she mentioned her concern to the coach, and “he acknowledged that there is racial segregation on the team.” She said the coaches said they had been trying to talk about the situation with the girls to make things better.
“You can’t produce winners if your teammates are divided,” Wright said. “They have to treat each other like sisters.”
But things didn’t improve.
She said her daughter experienced bullying from older white cheerleaders who shoulder bumped her in the hallway, and later, after her daughter was injured and unable to practice, she said a coach told her she needed to “turn her cheer bag in” because she was “uninterested.”
Wright said her daughter was reinstated by the athletics director, since proper protocol was not followed for an injured athlete, but in January Wright said her daughter decided to quit the team because she told her mother it felt like she wasn’t wanted.
Trying to get the problems addressed, Wright said, left her worn out.
“Why are these issues that we are still dealing with?” she asked.
“No sport is considered to be a white sport or a Black sport,” she said. “You have to keep going through different levels and different channels. It just becomes so exhausting.”
Multiple parents have expressed concerns about “a lack of equity, racial discrimination, classism, lack of inclusion, and separatism in regards to the operation of cheer programs,” the Lexington-Fayette Branch of the NAACP said in a news release late last month.
The parents also say there have been lapses in following rules set by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, that cheerleading rules have not been enforced equally for all students and that policies about bullying haven’t been enforced.
They’re concerned about “lack of inclusion in booster clubs for all parents, and civil rights violations when it comes to division between church and state for athletic events.”
“According to parents, the racial and mental trauma these athletes have endured due to coaches and teammates interacting in harmful and abusive ways is discriminatory,” the NAACP said in the release. “For some student athletes this has been going on for years despite parents reaching out to the administration.”
The NAACP said there seems to have been no significant changes despite students and parents speaking up about the issues.
Coaches and athletic directors at Fayette County schools connected to the allegations didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Discrimination concerns have affected students’ mental health
Davita Gatewood, a cheerleading parent who also serves on the Lexington NAACP’s education committee, said her daughter experienced “racially derogatory comments being made, a lot of separatism” and “a lot of classism” as part of the team at Frederick Douglass.
She said her daughter has been called inappropriate names, but the girls involved in the bullying “don’t have any consequence.”
The stress and negativity, she said, have had an affect on her daughter.
“It affects your mental health,” she said. “She’s had panic attacks.”
Gatewood said it also makes her uncomfortable that fundraising and a cheerleading banquet are held at a church every year.
And, she said, “the booster club has, in my opinion, never been inclusive.”
“All parents should be comfortable to join,” she said. “We should all have an opportunity to have a say.”
Gatewood, who has been involved with coaching cheer at Lexington Traditional Magnet School, said she’s also seen Douglass favor one of its feeder schools, Edythe J. Hayes Middle School, over others.
“Make sure all of these girls are prepared for tryouts,” she said.
She said she met with the school’s athletic director and an associate principal about her concerns, but she did not get resolution.
“I think sometimes some of these adults forget they are kids,” she said. “It’s caused some of them to give up on cheer and lose a love for a sport some wanted to do in college.”
While she said some of the girls do get along, “it’s just sad the whole team cannot be that way, and that it’s not more diverse.”
“It’s a toxic, racist, elitist environment that needs to be changed,” she said.
While cheerleading “is supposed to be fun,” Tequilla Hughes said her daughter, who she said has won state championships in gymnastics, left practices and games crying and throwing up because of the situation on Henry Clay’s team.
“I saw her start to doubt herself,” Hughes said. “No parent wants to see their child go through that.”
Hughes, whose daughter is a freshman, said rules did not seem to be applied fairly to all team members.
“Consequences don’t apply the same to everybody,” she said.
She said she was disheartened by the response from leadership when she brought up concerns.
“It was always pushed back on us like, ‘We’re trying,’” she said. “...It’s been a very toxic environment for my child.”
In two instances in which she tried to address the issues by speaking with those in charge, Hughes said she was accused of causing a problem.
“It’s bigger than racism to me. It’s like, privilege stuff,” she said. “It’s a series of little things that they let fester and grow that created this environment.”
She said she filed a complaint because “I don’t want another brown or Black girl to go through this.”
“They just sweep it under the rug,” she said. “I feel like I exhausted all the things that I knew to do.”
She said she had other concerns that also went unaddressed, including paying money to a parent’s personal Venmo account for booster club expenses.
“We feel like we’re fighting an uphill battle in a system that’s never going to change, because they don’t want it to change,” she said. “Who wants to suffer for a sport that’s supposed to be fun?”
Both she and Gatewood said they’d like to see diversity and inclusion training provided to adults involved in the programs, and Hughes suggested mediation for the students when a problem arises among them. And, she said, more accountability is needed between the school and district officials.
“There’s a disconnect somewhere between each individual school in Fayette County and the district,’” she said. “The administration to me is to blame for this.”
“When parents voice concerns, those concerns have to be taken seriously,” Hughes said.
NAACP hopes Fayette County schools will ‘take real action’
The school district has said it will investigate the situation.
“Fayette County Public Schools is committed to creating equitable and inclusive environments where all students are able to actively participate in academic and extracurricular opportunities,” Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Demetrus Liggins said in a statement last month. “As such, we take any and all allegations like those raised by the NAACP seriously and will take swift action to investigate this matter and take timely, deliberate, and unified action as necessary.”
The district said last week it had no new information on the investigation.
The NAACP said it hopes to raise awareness of the problem “and encourage the FCPS to take real action to work toward a resolution that leads to racial equity, inclusivity, and diversity within the District cheer programs and to continue to uniformly strive for justice and peace among all of its students and staff and respect the dignity and civil rights of each of these student athletes.
“We would like to continue work with the FCPS as well as KHSSA, KDE, and the community to build more equitable and inclusive policies that promote racial equity, inclusiveness, and diversity on the cheer squads and booster clubs and for every student and student athlete in FCPS,” the organization said.
Gatewood said she’s also hoping to create an opportunity for the young women to discuss what they have experienced with a mental health advocate in “healing circles.”
She said she does not believe Fayette County is alone in this issue, and she said it is not exclusive to cheerleading.
“We’re fighting for policy changes and KHSAA to change things,” she said.