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Drama has intensified among the Patrick Henry High School cheerleaders after news spread of their coaches’ firings this week. The announcement followed months of tension between cheer program leaders trying to keep the team going amid coronavirus closures and worried parents trying to ensure their kids’ safety is being prioritized.
When the novel coronavirus shut down schools in March, school and youth athletics were also supposed to be shuttered.
Youth athletics largely remained banned under state rules aimed at preventing the spread of the virus. The thinking was if kids can’t gather for academics, they can’t gather for athletics.
San Diego Unified’s director of athletics, Scott Giusti, who also serves as president of the San Diego section of the California Interscholastic Federation, or CIF, gave interviews early on indicating school sports would not likely resume until in-person classes resume.
That remains the case, and CIF has since announced the fall sports season will not begin until December at the earliest.
But as the closures dragged on into the new school year, some school coaches invited their student athletes to attend practices and workouts that looked similar to before. Same coaches and same teammates, but practices were off campus and often took at least some precautions, like distancing and temperature checks.
It now appears mixed messages from Patrick Henry High School cheer coaches, combined with allegations of retaliation against families who questioned ongoing practices amid COVID-19 closures, may have led administrators to fire the coaches this week.
Patrick Henry principal Michelle Irwin did not answer Voice of San Diego’s questions but sent an email to cheer families Tuesday night indicating the coaches were out.
“After much consideration, I have decided to have a fresh start for the Henry Sideline Cheer Club. In the coming months, we will be searching for new leadership to lead the Henry Cheerleading program,” Irwin wrote in the Sept. 15 email obtained by VOSD. “Please know this was not an arbitrary action. As a principal, I have the responsibility to ensure compliance and create a fair and balanced environment for all students. I strongly believe this adjustment is in the best interest of the Patrick Henry Sideline Cheer Club and its students.”
Head cheer coach Jill Clark, who was let go, told VOSD she believes her handling of workout sessions during the pandemic has not been problematic or unclear, and said she’s been targeted by parents with a vendetta.
“I’m personally sad that two parents would be out to ruin a program, ruin people’s livelihoods because their children didn’t work hard enough or made mistakes,” Clark said.
Roughly 65 students are on the school’s cheer team, including 27 on varsity, Clark said.
An email from the cheer team’s booster club Tuesday night urged parents unhappy with the decision “to let your voice be heard, if you choose … our/your opinion should matter.” A Change.org petition started by the varsity cheer captain to get the coaches rehired has garnered more than 690 signatures.
As recent as Sept. 4, Patrick Henry High School’s athletics director urged school coaches to clarify to families that whatever sports programming they are attending is not affiliated with the school district.
“Any practice/conditioning/competition that a person is participating in is an outside travel/club team but is not affiliated with SDUSD,” Justin Clark, the athletics director, wrote in an email. (He is not related to the cheer coach.)
Clark, the cheer coach, said she thought she was doing all the right things when she rebranded her practices as the Patriot Club Cheer, and even shifted from all team gatherings in July to invite-only sessions this week.
Those invitations went to all but two of the team’s cheerleaders – who happen to be the children of parents who expressed concerns with the practices in recent months.
Patrick Henry’s cheer situation highlights the pressure some parents have felt to keep their kids involved in youth sports during the pandemic – and to not raise a fuss or ask if they meet local health and safety orders.
To better understand what happened in the Patrick Henry cheer program, you have to go back to March when the closures first occurred.
Patrick Henry cheer, like other school sports, largely went dark, but the school’s junior varsity coach was not eager to shut down a private offseason competition team attended by some students at the Infinity Gymnastics gym in El Cajon. Practices were to continue, even after that team’s scheduled competitions were canceled.
When cheer parent Jonathan Ingalls questioned the decision in messages on the BAND app, where parents communicate with coaches, other parents also chimed in to express concerns.
The top priority needed to be the “health and safety of the girls,” Ingalls told VOSD. “In the absence of any competitions on the horizon, I just didn’t see how it made any sense to practice.”
He pulled his daughter out, and others followed. When the state ordered gyms to close, all practices ceased, at least for a while. But Ingalls believes the tensions had a lingering impact on his daughter’s cheer life. In June, video tryouts were held for the fall season.
The result: “We were the only family cut from the team. 83 girls tried out. 82 made it,” said Ingalls, whose daughter is now a sophomore.
The reason given was an incident in January when his daughter was found on campus with a vape pen. At the time, she was booted from the team and lost her Associated Student Body position and school sports privileges for six weeks. She has since gone on to play for the school’s lacrosse team and participate in private cheer lessons and teams led by the coaches, though.
In cutting her, Ingalls said they cited “potential future discipline issues,” but “it didn’t make sense … I don’t think it had anything to do with the incident … You can’t perpetually exclude someone.”
Ingalls said his family has become “the poster child” of parents who express health and safety concerns tied to the pandemic. “If you say something, they’ll just cut you or tell you to not participate,” he said.
Another cheer parent, April Grant, told VOSD she also found the reasoning they cut Ingalls’ daughter suspect, because several other girls caught vaping in recent years made the team.
Clark, the head cheer coach, said no other cheerleaders were disciplined for vaping on campus and school administrators determined they couldn’t discipline students for off-campus vaping.
Clark confirmed Ingalls’ daughter was the only returning cheerleader cut this season, but said freshmen trying out for the first time were also cut. Clark said she apologized for letting her try out in the first place when the cheer handbook had a zero-tolerance drug policy that called for a ban the following season. That policy has since been removed from the handbook, she said.
“I learned there can’t be a rule like that,” Clark said, adding that CIF policy suspends students for drug offenses for 15 days before allowing them back on the team. “I try to be a leader and try to help these girls make better decisions.”
Ingalls attempted to question the decision with school officials, citing the ACLU’s stance against exclusionary discipline, but said his efforts were a “waste of time.”
After bringing his concerns to CIF and district officials, though his daughter was, “forced back on the team against the coaches’ will,” he said.
Clark, however, said she wasn’t forced to allow Ingalls’ daughter back on the team.
The clash in March over practices wouldn’t be the last.
When cheer gyms reopened in July, Patrick Henry cheer coaches called practices indoors at the CheerForce gym in El Cajon.
In-person attendance was optional, but those who opted out had to still attend on Zoom and report absences to the coach. Ingalls said his daughter participated only online. Those who attended in person signed a gym waiver but didn’t fill out any other paperwork or registration.
Clark said attendance was not truly mandatory, “but is there a courtesy and a respect issue to let people know what your personal plan is? Absolutely.”
Cheer team members met for three weeks, a couple days a week. Screenshots of the gatherings shared with VOSD show some uncovered faces in close proximity.
Clark said masks were optional, as long as six feet of distance was kept, and temperatures were checked. No stunting or touching occurred and roughly 18 students from each team attended each session in-person, she said. No other teams were in the gym during the sessions, though Clark said occasionally non-Patrick Henry students would join in.
A visit from a county COVID-19 compliance officer ended without incident, and a county spokesman confirmed to VOSD no directives were given to the cheer team during the county investigation of a complaint.
In July, CIF officially postponed the fall sports season until December.
Students instantly became part of the Patriot Club Cheer, and coaches told students the gatherings were not affiliated with the school. Clark said the newly minted cheer club has done no paperwork and has no nonprofit or business affiliation. She said any liability for possible accidents would be on the gym or coaches, not the school or district.
Still, some parents wondered what they were sending their kids to and worried not attending could cost their kid a spot on the school’s team.
In an email to a parent July 22, obtained by VOSD, Giusti – the district athletic director – said, “We’ve continued to keep our facilities closed to school site activities and even rentals of the facilities just to ensure that our message is in line with state and county health guidance … If there are cheerleading activities going on, they may be CheerForce and they may be tied to day camps if they meet the county and state health guidelines.”
That didn’t necessarily clear things up.
“I am at this point unsure of what my daughter has been attending,” Grant wrote in a July 25 email to school and district officials. “We have not been solicited, registered or given any permission for her to attend an outside organization’s program. The only thing we receive are updates related to the Patrick Henry cheer program along with practice information that are signed by Patrick Henry Head Cheer Coach Jill Clark.”
Coaches told parents they were operating lawfully as a day camp.
But after hearing reports cheerleaders were touching each other to perform stunts, Grant – whose daughter attended only online – said parents began asking, “Aren’t there laws against this? Isn’t this against the guidance?”
Messages from school and district officials indicating the practices were not part of the school cheer program were confounding.
“I felt insulted. Are you really trying to tell me I accidentally put my kids in day camp? She’s not 4,” Grant said.
Emails obtained from a public records request shared with VOSD show someone complained to Superintendent Cindy Marten that the cheer practices were violating COVID-19 safety protocols.
Giusti, with the district, again reiterated the practices were not school-affiliated. When the principal thanked him separately for handling the complaint later that day, Giusti replied, “No worries … It’s one thing if I’m going to give you shit for cheerleading or anything else but I can’t have these clowns going to the supt. On you. F’them! Now tell (cheer director) Terri Clark to get her shit together and stop having practices.”
Giusti did not respond to several VOSD inquiries.
District emails also show an earlier anonymous complaint routed to the district’s Quality Assurance Office over the practices July 11 led the school principal to ask cheer leadership for more messaging separating the practices from the school and district.
After the July sessions wrapped, coaches continued meeting with smaller groups of students from the cheer team at private gyms for extra compensation.
Then came this week, and Patriot Club Cheer was back in session – but this time two cheerleaders were not invited: Grant’s daughter, and Ingalls’ daughter.
With the new school year underway, the cheer club met at Infinity Gymnastics in El Cajon this week and was scheduled to meet for the next two weeks.
Practices are held in two-hour slots during hours San Diego Unified has reserved for students to do independent schoolwork as students learn remotely.
Clark acknowledged all cheer team members were invited to the optional club practices except Grant’s daughter and Ingalls’ daughter.
She said she understands their concerns about retaliation, “but I’m not going to have people come under my instruction who are trying to destroy me” when it’s optional and a club.
Clark said her entire aim the last several months is to try to help fill the huge void caused by COVID-19.
“These kids have nothing. They didn’t even have school up to a week and a half ago. They love cheerleading. They love tumbling. They love our program,” she said.
Before news of the coach firings came, Ingalls said the whole experience has shed light on the need for more oversight and training for school coaches.
Coaches are “not counseled by (the district) in policies and procedures,” he said. “Parents are paralyzed with the fear that their voice or feedback will put their daughter in a bad position.”