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For Cheerleading Squad, a Hard-Learned Lesson. . .

Los Alamitos High School varsity cheerleaders brought back a fifth-place award from a national competition. But for 10, disciplinary action followed a shoplifting incident.

March 26, 1998|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some lessons learned in sports in recent months:

Throttling your NBA coach will get you a suspension and a $6-million penalty.

Offering a bribe to throw a college basketball game will get you arrested.

Shoplifting will fell a tightknit and nationally ranked cheerleading squad as swiftly as a human pyramid tumbling to the floor of a high school gym.

Hard lessons have always gone hand in hand with athletics. And the ones being learned hardest are often not from the playing field, but just off it.

For 10 varsity cheerleaders from Los Alamitos High School, the lesson was learned in February at the Universal Cheerleaders Assn.'s National Championship in Orlando, Fla. Sixteen members of the squad joined 6,000 participants from around the country to compete for national rankings.

The theft was from a souvenir tent at the event.

Value of the items taken: about $50.

Price paid by 10 girls: four-day suspensions from school and removal from the cheerleading squad for the remainder of the school year.

As word of the incident and consequences filtered out, it sparked a free-for-all of opinions in the community. Was the punishment a match for the wrongdoing? Too much? Too little? Just right?

"The whole thing makes our school look bad," offers one student. "It's embarrassing," says another.

An editorial lamenting the affair in the Sun newspaper in Seal Beach was headlined "Sis, boom, bawl."

What was to have been a moment of triumph for the teens has become lost in recriminations and tears--and the lesson about actions and consequences.

"When you're talking about cheerleaders, or at least athletes, in high school, they aren't adults yet, and it's our responsibility to teach them at that time," says Todd Boyd, professor at USC and author of "Out of Bounds: Sports, Media and the Politics of Identity."

Two groups from Los Alamitos High School made it to the national competition in Orlando: The cheerleaders, whose routines focus on gymnastics, and the song leaders, whose routines employ dance and pompoms.

The song leaders finished first among 92 teams in the jazz division and took home the gold.

The cheerleaders placed fifth among 71.

Then, in the midst of victory, the agony of deceit.

Cheerleading coach Michele Fitzgerald became aware that some of her varsity squad cheerleaders might have been involved in shoplifting trinkets and clothing from the UCA-sponsored tent.

According to several of those close to the incident, the coach called a meeting of the cheerleaders shortly before the group was scheduled to leave Orlando. She confronted the girls with the allegations, making it clear that the consequences would be serious. Ten of the girls admitted they had shoplifted items, from pens to shorts and T-shirts.

According to one of the suspended cheerleaders, the girls had 15 minutes to shop before a van would take them back to the event. While some paid for their merchandise, others took items without paying, slipping things under their shirts or into shopping bags as they darted to the van.

"It was just like one of those dumb teenage things," the girl said. "It was a spur-of-the-moment feeling like I wanted to be a rebel or get away with something. . . . If I could go back, I would have never done it."

*

Los Alamitos, like many other schools, has a zero-tolerance policy regarding infractions of the student code of conduct.

Even those who support zero-tolerance policies can find them difficult to implement. Boyd of USC says he isn't sure "if zero-tolerance is ever a good thing. It sounds good and appeases people, but these are kids we're talking about. They are going to make mistakes."

Lowering the boom on the girls was "one of the toughest decisions we have ever had to make," said Los Alamitos activities director Judy Trujillo.

"You learn life lessons in high school," said Trujillo, who attended the competition. "We always try to hold [the cheerleaders] to a high standard, but, God love them, they're kids, and they make mistakes."

Principal Carol Hart declined to comment on the incident, citing student privacy rights. However, she confirmed that the disciplinary action against the 10 varsity cheerleaders was an administrative decision based on "violation of the school's code of conduct that is expected of each season of students."

Parents of a number of those involved say the punishment has been no slap on the wrist--especially on top of groundings and other sanctions at home.

"The coach was furious and really took a hard line with the girls who participated," said Diana Ono of Seal Beach, whose daughter was on an unrelated outing at the time of the incident and who remains on the squad. "They were mortified. They confessed without being caught. . . . It has demolished the squad."

"They are just dying," said David Lemmerman, whose daughter is also one of those remaining on the slashed varsity squad. "I've had letters from the girls saying how sorry they are . . . crying their eyes out on the phone. . . . They took responsibility from the get-go."

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