LONG BEACH — School district officials threatened disciplinary action this week against several high school cheerleading groups for performing in their uniforms at a church-sponsored rally, despite a recent district edict prohibiting them from doing so.
"If (the cheerleaders) didn't get the message, that's one thing," said Ed Eveland, assistant superintendent in charge of secondary schools. "But if they got it and went ahead on their own, they may face disciplinary action that would lead to them not being involved in (cheerleading) anymore."
Eveland issued a strongly worded memo to high school principals last week after learning that dozens of high school cheerleading and pep squads had been routinely performing at Friday night church rallies for at least three years. The performances, Eveland said, improperly involve public schools in church events, violating the doctrine of separation of church and state.
In addition to forbidding the performances, Eveland's memo ordered principals to be more vigilant in preventing on-campus distribution of flyers promoting the rallies.
Local pastors, who say the gatherings at their churches are primarily designed to give teen-agers a wholesome alternative to booze parties or using drugs after football games, have denied any impropriety. They say they disagree with Eveland's interpretation of church-state separation.
And indeed, last Friday night--just two days after the memo went out--two fully uniformed high school cheerleading squads participated in a rally at First Baptist Church of Lakewood. An estimated 800 students ate ice cream and pizza while watching live pep squad performances and video replays of school
"We were not told by any school authority not to appear," said Tara Barrett, 17, a member of the Millikan High School varsity yell squad. Also appearing was the Millikan junior varsity yell squad and Lakewood High School's varsity song group, which, in a concession to Eveland's dictum, performed wearing T-shirts hand-painted with their school's initials rather than the sweaters they usually wear with their uniforms.
Millikan activities specialist Robert Schnebeck accepted responsibility for the appearance of his school's two groups, saying that he had inadvertently neglected to inform their faculty adviser of Eveland's memo. "It falls on me," he said, adding that the squad has since been informed.
Peter Cole, activities specialist at Lakewood High School, said the pep groups there had been told not to perform at the church functions as representatives of their school. "Obviously, I can't go chasing down there to find out what they're doing," he said.
Eveland said the appearances of all three groups violated district policy. "Just the fact that they didn't wear their regular uniforms but indicated that they were Lakewood song . . . is a violation of the spirit of the thing," he said. "It's still illegal."
Parents Offer Support
Pastors at sponsoring churches, meanwhile, said they were deluged with supportive telephone calls from parents after a newspaper article on the controversy appeared last week. "People want to know what they can do to help," said Paul Copeland, youth pastor at Grace Brethren Church of Long Beach, one of four area churches sponsoring the rallies. The others, besides First Baptist Church of Lakewood, are Bethany Baptist Church of Long Beach and Grace Community Church of Seal Beach.
One of the supportive calls came from Nancy McKnight, co-director of the local chapter of a Christian-oriented group called Citizens for Excellence in Education, which is highly critical of the school district's handling of the matter.
"This whole business of separation of church and state doesn't even apply," she said. "We're playing a wait-and-see game to see what the school district follows through on. I have a lot of parents who are willing to fight."