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Mother's Pep Squad Suit Fails After Girl Can't Make Grade

May 24, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

On the day cheerleaders for Mesa Robles Junior High School were chosen, 12-year-old Chelsea Lawley sat in Pomona Superior Court hoping to stop this traditional rite of spring in the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District.

Chelsea was barred from the tryouts on May 15 by the school's rule that a C in citizenship is not good enough for a cheerleader. Her hopes were dashed again when Judge Glenn Pfau denied her request for a temporary restraining order that would have stopped the tryouts.

But Chelsea's mother, attorney Bonnie K. Lawley, said she plans to go back to court to challenge the rule on behalf of her daughter and future would-be cheerleaders whose citizenship grades are "average."

Discrimination Alleged

In seeking the restraining order on the same day as the tryouts, Lawley said the Hacienda Heights school requires at least a B in citizenship for cheerleaders and student body officers, although a C is acceptable for athletes. This discriminates against girls, she said, because they are traditionally cheerleaders, while sports are largely boys' domain.

Mesa Robles is one of two junior high schools in the district which require a B in citizenship. The other five allow a C, Lawley said.

Citizenship--which is behavior, not classroom work--is the only area in which students must have a B to participate in cheerleading. No B's are required for athletics, though participants must maintain a C average.

John Wagner, attorney for the district, said the State Education Code and the Hacienda La Puente district give individual schools the authority to establish standards for extracurricular activities. There is no discrimination, he said, because boys can try out for cheerleader, and the school has girls' as well as boys' athletic teams, with the same grade requirements. Two boys tried out unsuccessfully for cheerleader last year.

Mesa Robles, Wagner said, views cheerleaders and student body officers as "exemplars of school leadership," having even higher visibility than athletes.

Lawley's request for a restraining order was directed against the school district, the school board, Mesa Robles Principal Gabriel Parodi and others.

She also sought $1 million in damages, alleging that Chelsea, as a result of being disqualified from trying out, "suffered humiliation, mental anguish and emotional and physical distress . . . incurring medical and related expenses."

Allegations Unproven

Lawley and Wagner said the restraining order and damages were denied because Lawley could not prove her allegations of unconstitutional discrimination. Judge Pfau did not comment on the closed-session hearing.

When she returns to court, Lawley said, she will "be more specific, spelling out details" of how the grading system discriminates against females and how Chelsea suffered as a result.

Meanwhile, Chelsea has no chance of being a Mesa Robles cheerleader, her longtime goal. The tryouts were her one chance to make the 16-member cheerleading team next year, when she will be an eighth-grader. At the end of that year, she expects to graduate and enter high school--where, again, she hopes to be a cheerleader.

At Mesa Robles, citizenship is graded on a merit system devised by the school staff and community representatives long before Parodi became principal in 1974, he said. Until this incident, it had never been challenged.

Students Get Demerits

Students have a citizenship score of 100 at the start of each of six grading periods during the school year. They receive demerits for infractions, the most common being tardiness, chewing gum and coming to class without required materials such as textbooks. Students may work off demerits by earning points in a variety of ways, such as helping teachers or working in the school cafeteria.

Parodi said students get an A for a score of 90-100, a B for 80-89 and a C for 70-79. In the last grading period, 92% of Mesa Robles 7th- and 8th-graders had A's or B's.

Chelsea said her C was the result of a several minor infractions during the last grading period, most of them repeated. She was caught chewing gum three times. She was late to class but couldn't remember how many times. She forgot books and lost one book, failing to pay for it in the required time, she and her mother said.

Chelsea has had a C in citizenship in five grading periods this year.

'Not a Discipline Problem'

"She's a normal kid. She's not perfect, but she's not a discipline problem either," her mother said. "Chelsea got too many demerits, but that's irrelevant to the issue. Schools should have the same requirement for boys' sports as for girls' pep."

"This is not a boy-girl issue," Wagner said. "Chelsea is in the bottom 8% in citizenship in the school. She had every opportunity to bring up her grade. The school has its standards and Chelsea did not meet them. There's no reason to lower standards."

Supt. James E. Johnson said that throughout the district, more than 90% of the more than 1,000 junior high students maintain a B or higher in citizenship.

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