Pompoms have been exchanged for petitions. Pep practices have given way to protests. There are tears, not cheers as Newport Harbor High School's cheerleaders battle it out in a Texas-sized fracas over yelling rights on the coastal campus.
At issue: Who among the 48 girls trying out for 30 slots actually deserves to be on the team? Or, as one school official suggested, should they all get a spot?
"This has gotten pretty nasty," said Mike Johnston, a father of two cheerleaders who scored well in the tryouts and made the original team. "It's tough to say, but when you have athletic contests or beauty contests, there are winners and losers. You don't just give everybody a crown. This isn't junior soccer."
Ever since 1996, when the school district settled a lawsuit and paid a former cheerleader tens of thousands of dollars in damages after she didn't make the team, Newport Harbor High has gone to unheard of lengths to ensure the fairness of the selection process. Auditions, conducted by a panel of five professional judges, are overseen by a certified public accountant and a representative from the League of Women Voters.
This time, even those safeguards didn't work.
It started with tryouts on Nov. 29. Many girls had spent months preparing for the competition, even paying thousands of dollars for specialized dance and cheerleader coaching.
Some parents and the team's faculty advisor say the selection process was executed beautifully. But other parents and the cheerleading coach say tryout judges didn't use the right selection criteria.
As a result, the critics say, girls who flubbed the mandatory routine but improvised with smiles and panache were chosen over girls who made it through dizzying chains of pirouettes and twirls as required.
"I've never seen such inconsistencies," said Lisa Callahan, a former professional cheerleader who has coached Newport Harbor High's squad for the last 13 years. She said this is the first time she has questioned a tryout.
"My advisor thinks I'm doing this because I wanted certain girls on the team," said Callahan, who is paid by the high school booster club and supervised by a faculty advisor. "But I just didn't think it was fair what happened."
Callahan--who attended the tryouts but does not have a vote--said she went to school officials to protest when she learned who was chosen.
When they heard about the alleged inconsistencies, a group of mothers of girls who had not made the team also rallied to the cause.
School officials tried to mediate the dispute, but to no avail. That their attempts to resolve matters haven't helped seems to be the only thing parents on both sides can agree on. The principal has promised to make a final decision on the matter this week.
Faculty advisor Jennifer Cilderman insists that the tryout process was fair and believes the team should go forward with the judges' choices.
"I want the integrity of the cheer program to be upheld," said Cilderman, adding that improvising when you can't do a certain step or movement is "just part of performing."
Meanwhile, the ongoing furor is the talk of this upscale beach town, even during winter break. Girls who have studied dance together for years have stopped speaking. And as basketball season dawns, skirts and sweaters have yet to be ordered. The practice floor is empty. And no one can agree who rightfully can call herself a cheerleader.
When the controversy first erupted, Principal Michael Vossen responded by deciding that all who tried out could be on the squad. On Dec. 12, Vossen sent a letter to all cheerleaders and their parents in which he promised to address any inconsistencies in the tryout process in future years. He concluded: "I implore all of you to work cooperatively with us to ensure that these fine young ladies have a successful season."
At first, that decision seemed OK with everyone. The girls who had not made the first cut were ecstatic.
"When I got the phone call, I started crying because I was so happy," said junior Katie Stephens. Being a cheerleader, the 16-year-old added, "is something I have always wanted to do."
All the girls practiced together for a week, flipping each other into the air as needed, and belting cheers, according to coach Callahan.
Then a group of parents whose daughters made the original cut lodged their own complaint with district officials. They noted that all parents and prospective pep squad members had vowed in writing to abide by the panel judges' decisions.
"The rules are the rules," said Johnston, who said his daughters support his actions but because the issue has become so explosive, he doesn't want them to discuss it publicly. "I think it's a horrible message to give to kids that if you don't make the cut and if you scream loud enough, they'll give you what you want."
At the request of those parents, the district convened a special committee of top district brass. School officials suspended pep practices pending an investigation.