Idaho cheerleaders claim their high school retaliated against them. A federal judge agrees.

Burley cheerleaders root for their team against Minico in this Times News file photo from Jan. 8, 2016, at Burley High School.
Burley cheerleaders root for their team against Minico in this Times News file photo from Jan. 8, 2016, at Burley High School. Drew Nash, Times News

A federal judge last month sided with a group of Burley High School cheerleaders who claimed that the school district retaliated against them by kicking them off the team over a protest and their pursuit of their First Amendment rights.

Idaho Chief U.S. District Judge David Nye wrote in his July 26 order that the girls had proved that they were dismissed from the cheerleading team for reserving their right to engage in the Cassia County School District’s grievance process.

The decision was written after nine students filed a lawsuit in 2018 alleging that the high school, school district and its employees violated the girls’ First Amendment rights in October 2017. The lawsuit came after some of the cheerleading team’s members staged a sit-in protest in opposition to the actions of their coach.

The students were alleging “bullying, favoritism and incompetence” by coach Laine Mansfield, according to copies of court documents. The cheerleaders involved in the lawsuit claimed that Mansfield routinely bullied them for their appearance and abilities, and did not express concern for their safety. They claim she gave them no direction on how to safely stunt and attempt dangerous acrobatics.

The students and their parents reportedly voiced concerns to Burley High administration and the school district. Ultimately, on Sept. 29, 2017, 14 cheerleaders staged a sit-in at the gym during practice. At the end of the day, they were suspended from the cheerleading team for the next week.

The plaintiffs argue that they had a right to peacefully protest at a public high school.

A week later, the students were sent a letter stating that they could be reassigned to the cheerleading team, should they comply with certain punishments. It mandated that they apologize, complete a Saturday service project, follow all rules of the cheerleading handbook and refrain from any negative social media posts about the school, cheer squad or staff, among other mandates.

Each of the team members and their parents signed the stipulated agreements, but the students named in the lawsuit added a one-sentence letter stating, “I/We are signing this but we want to reserve our right to be afforded our rights in the districts (sic) grievance process,” according to the court documents.

The cheerleaders who added that letter were dismissed from the team. Those who did not reserve their right to engage in grievances were allowed back on the team.

Judge Nye wrote that an expression to engage in the district’s grievance process is protected under the First Amendment and “was the substantial and motivating factor” for the students being dismissed from the team.

Nye wrote that the plaintiffs’ damage request has not been argued or decided, and an appropriate amount would be reserved for trial. A trial date had not been set as of Wednesday.

The Idaho Statesman reached out to the school district for comment, and spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield said, “While disappointed in the ruling, it is only one part of a two-part question and the district is working with its legal counsel to hopefully reach a fair resolution and to ensure the district can focus on the educational goals and needs of our students.”

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Reporter Ruth Brown covers the criminal justice and correctional systems in Idaho. She focuses on breaking news, public safety and social justice. Prior to coming to the Idaho Statesman, she was a reporter at the Idaho Press-Tribune, the Bakersfield Californian and the Idaho Falls Post Register.