Idaho cheerleaders sue school district, claim they were kicked off squad for sit-in

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

Nine Idaho students are suing the Cassia County School District, Burley High School, Superintendent Gaylen Smyer, and a slew of BHS employees, claiming they were unfairly removed from their high school cheerleading team after staging a “sit-in” to protest conflicts with the school’s new cheerleading coach.

A lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court, alleges that the Idaho high school, school district and its employees violated the girls’ First Amendment rights in October.

The students, who were identified only by their initials, claim BHS cheerleading coach Laine Mansfield’s “temperament, fairness, judgment, and ability to safely coach the team began to concern” them shortly after she was hired in April 2017.

The suit alleges that Mansfield forbid team members from associating with certain students, failed to properly address safety concerns related to cheerleading stunts, selectively and unfairly enforced attendance rules and “degraded (cheerleaders) and their cheerleading abilities during practices. These comments went beyond the critical motivation that some coaches direct at their athletes.”

Debbie Critchfield, a spokeswoman for the school district, said the district had yet been made aware of the lawsuit and said she had no comment.

After some of the students’ parents met with school administrators to address these concerns, the derogatory comments got worse, the suit alleges.

As tensions built with Mansfield, 14 members of the cheerleading squad “engaged in a peaceful ‘sit in’ protest in the BHS gym at the end of one of their before-school practices” on Sept. 29, 2017, according to the lawsuit.

“That same day, BHS Vice Principals Kit Kanekoa and Andrew Wray informed plaintiffs that their participation in the sit-in would result in a one-week suspension from the cheer team,” the suit claims.

To rejoin the team, the BHS Principals’ Office asked each student to sign a statement agreeing to several conditions, including an additional two-week suspension from cheerleading activities, a four-hour service project, an essay reflecting on the sit-in and an agreement to refrain from “speaking freely about their experience with the coaching staff or on the cheer team in general.” If they didn’t sign the statement, the students said, they would be dismissed from the team.

In early October, the nine students who brought the lawsuit returned their signed statements to the principal’s office — along with a letter from their parents reserving their right to participate in the Cassia County School District’s grievance process, the lawsuit said. Those nine students were dismissed from the cheerleading team via the following letter:

“It is clear to district level administration that while the stipulation agreements were returned the presence of the additional page or addendum suggests a continued conflict on the part of the cheer team, the individual student and parents with the coach and school administration. Such an expression is interpreted to be a desire to utilize the grievance process as opposed to the solution propounded by the administration. It is the belief of the school superintendent and the assistant superintendent the school and the cheer team would best be served by revoking the membership of [Plaintiff] on the Burley High School cheer team effective Monday, October 9, 2017 at 8:00 a.m. The dismissal from the Burley High School Cheer Team will be effective for the 2017-2018 school year. This decision, while not easy is based upon all the findings and information state above and weighed against the constitutional and state requirements concerning education services, the education process, academic discipline and learning, the need to avoid disruption of the education process along with statutory requirements to provide support and professional development for teachers.”

Lawyers for the students claim the girls were forced to transfer out of their morning cheerleading class, but were prevented from joining other classes by school employees. One cheerleader said she was also dismissed from her office aid position in the principals’ office because she had supposedly “‘lost the trust’ of BHS principals and teachers as a result of her participation in the sit-in.”

The lawsuit claims the school district and its employees violated constitutionally protected speech, not only by suspending the cheerleaders for their sit-in but again when the students were removed from the cheerleading team after reserving their right to the grievance process.

Alleging emotional and psychological distress and damage to the cheerleaders’ reputations, the lawsuit asks that the defendants pay the complainants’ lawyer fees of $25,000. In addition, the students’ lawyers are asking for “punitive damages” against the district and its employees.

Nicole Blanchard: 208-377-6410, @NMBlanchard