By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org
Disputes over pay to play, bullying, fraud and safety have erupted around the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School cheerleading program and have led to an investigation by Broward County Schools.
In the past few weeks, Special Investigative Unit agents have interviewed parents and Stoneman Douglas staff regarding the program and booster club, including a complaint the club has broken county rules by collecting tens of thousands of dollars from parents as a requirement to be a cheerleader at the Parkland high school.
The investigation came after complaints that Principal Washington Collado repeatedly ignored problems in the program, parents say. At Stoneman Douglas, Collado gave the parent-run booster club much of the responsibility of outfitting the team and arranging travel to tournaments apparently in violation of school system
When one parent complained twice, Collado told her she was “disruptive” and banned her indefinitely from the campus.
“We found there is no point talking to that principal. He will do nothing,” said Tammy Tornari, a Parkland mother who was the first parent to complain about the Eagles Cheerleading Booster Club.
She questioned a demand by the club for more than $2,000 in order for her two children to participate in cheerleading. The school has about 30 cheerleaders.
Collado declined comment on the investigation and referred all questions to Tracy Clark, the school system’s chief information officer.
“We are aware of the allegations at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland,” Clark said in an e-mail to Broward Bulldog. “We are currently investigating the allegations. As such, we cannot comment on investigations that are in progress. Pending the completion of the investigation, the District will take appropriate action. We take all allegations of bullying, fraud and mishandling of funds seriously.”
State-certified law enforcement officers run the Special Investigative Unit.
Eagles Cheerleading Booster Club President Joy Kelley said that in response to the complaints and investigation, the organization has been disbanded, with the financial records and left over money turned over to the school.
“Everything was done properly and for the girls,” Kelly said. “They will see that every dime is account for. Everybody was working for the girls except for a few women. “
When asked about the specific allegations involving the cheerleading program, Kelly said, “The truth will come out when the investigation is completed. We are cooperating. Nothing was done wrong. They talk about bullying. The bullying was done by those three or four women.”
PAY TO PLAY INVESTIGATED
Complaints started in the late fall shortly after parents began getting bombarded with invoices from the booster club. When parents questioned the bills of more than $1,000-a-student to participate in cheerleading, they say the management of the booster club rebuffed them.
Tornari said the costs didn’t add up.
“They said the costs were for uniforms, radios, a mat,” she said. “They couldn’t really even tell us anything beyond that. They couldn’t break down the costs and tell us what everything cost.”
Another outraged parent was Joann Gavin of Parkland, a former club official.
When the booster club was formed early in the school year, Gavin was asked to be assistant treasurer because one was required by club rules.
Gavin said despite the assistant treasurer title, the women who controlled the organization would hold meetings without inviting her and other members, effectively pushing them into the background of the group.
She added she never even met most of the other officers until she started to complain about the program. However, as assistant treasurer, Gavin had access to the booster club’s bank statements and cancelled checks
Gavin was shocked when she reviewed the club’s financial records. She said she found that the club had raised roughly $60,000 from invoicing parents.
The cancelled checks showed the club had hired two outside assistant coaches for $600-a-month. One coach was paid an additional $3,000 for “choreography and music,” according to the notation on the check. Other individuals were paid for t-shirts and bags. There was a check for $375 for bows paid to an individual.
“There was definitely something wrong. When were any of these expenses voted on by the club?” Gavin said.
With the help of an attorney, parents found that allowing the booster club to collect and spend the money violated School Board policy. The school system’s policy is included in a Standard Practice Bulletin given annually to principals and others to ensure the millions of dollars it takes to run a school is handled properly.
Under the rules, the booster club must give all monies collected to the school for handling. The policy also bans requiring parents to pay, in part to ensure programs are open to students who may not have the money to participate.
The rulebook capitalizes the prohibition in the policy. Booster clubs “May Not charge parents a fee for instructional material, equipment or supplies relating to the school program or activities,” states Policy I-101 VI.
Armed with information about the cheerleading program, Gavin met with the principal at least twice, first alone and then with others concerned about the booster program. Those who attended the meetings say the principal did nothing to change the program.
Gavin, meanwhile, received a registered letter banning her from the campus under a School Board policy designed to eliminate threats to students and staff.
Although she had two children in the school and there were no allegations she was dangerous, Collado’s open-ended ban forbid her from even entering the school’s front office. She has sued in Broward Circuit Court charging that Collado and the school system violated her constitutional rights to due process by not allowing any method to protest the ban, like a hearing.
Another parent, Kathy Silver, complained to coaches that her daughter had been bullied in the program.
Silver said she protested to cheerleading coaches that her daughter was continuously bullied. Silver and at least two other parents said girls were subjected to insults by coaches and other cheerleaders during performances. The bullying allegedly continued via social networking sites on the Internet.
The School Board has a strong policy to fight bullying and requires that any written or oral complaint be investigated.
Silver said that did not happen. “No one would listen. No one did anything,” she said.
SAFETY CONCERNS CITED
Parents also cited safety issues with the cheerleading program.
Gavin said she knows of six students who have been injured in Stoneman Douglas cheerleading.
Julie Chaykin, a co-founder and vice president of the U. S. Cheerleading Association, has a daughter in Stoneman Douglas cheerleading. On May 20, she e-mailed School Superintendent Robert Runcie and several other school system administrators that the program was rife with problems.
Her e-mail was prompted by Collado’s reappointment of Cheerleading Coach Melissa Prochilo. Chaykin wrote that she was astounded the coach was being allowed to run the program again despite numerous complaints and what she said were the “extremely dangerous” stunts forced upon students.
“After personally hearing and viewing several extremely dangerous and inappropriate situations…I was quite confident that once our administration became aware of the situation, that it would be impossible for Melissa Prochillo to remain on staff in any capacity, dealing with the Cheerleaders at our school. No knowledgeable coach would ever have an athlete attempt a level 4 skill without first safely perfecting the progression of skills preceding said level,” Chaykin wrote.
How long the investigation might take is not known. “I do not have a timeframe for the completion of the investigation,” Clark said.
On April 30, months after the first complaints, a notice was posted on the school’s web site reminding parents that the new season of cheerleading was starting again. The notice ended with a reminder that parents were to bring to the initial meeting “$150 cash or money order – NO EXCEPTIONS!!”
“He just doesn’t care about anything we said,” Gavin said referring to Collado.
Buddy Nevins can be reached at email@example.com