A Wisconsin School District Shrugged After High School Coaches Body-Shamed Cheerleaders

The cheerleaders at Tremper High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, looked forward to the annual spring banquet as a time to celebrate their hard work in the company of over 100 friends and family members. What they never expected was for the banquet to become a humiliating exercise in body shaming.

In the banquet hall of a Kenosha restaurant in March 2018, the cheer coaches presented some squad members with “most improved” and “hardest worker” awards as the crowd applauded and snapped photos. Yet not all of the awards celebrated the cheerleaders’ hard work and athleticism.

The coaches also presented awards to the cheerleader with the largest buttocks and the largest breasts as well as an award for being the thinnest cheerleader. In video footage obtained by the ACLU, the coaches proclaimed, “We love her butt. Everybody loves her butt” as the recipient of the largest buttocks award made her way to the front of the crowded room.

These three young women were not the first to receive objectifying awards. The largest breasts and buttocks awards were also handed out during the 2017 cheer banquet. Additionally, a cheerleader with brown hair received a blonde wig as an award because she was deemed a “ditzy girl.”

After the 2018 banquet, concerned parents and a coach of another team complained to the Tremper principal and the Kenosha Unified School District (KUSD) leadership. The coach emailed the principal, “I feel that I need to tell you this for the protection of these girls . . . . I don’t think it takes much to see that this is extremely degrading to women.”

She also directly contacted the lead cheer coach to discourage her from objectifying squad members. The cheer coach responded, “I honestly don’t feel that I need to explain myself about how we ran our banquet. Actually we have ran it this way for years and have never had a problem.”

An ACLU client, the mother of a cheerleader and an attendee of the banquet, followed up persistently with the school and KUSD leadership about her concern that the cheer awards sent a harmful message to her daughter and other cheerleaders. Administrators repeatedly brushed her concerns aside, insisting that the awards were just a joke.

Yet a memo the ACLU received through an open records request reveals that a KUSD human resources official tasked with investigating the complaints did not share the leadership’s cavalier attitude. After interviewing the head cheer coach about the incident, she instructed the coach to submit her resignation. The principal rejected the official’s recommendation and told the coach that “she was welcome back” the following year. The coach is still leading the cheerleading team to this day.

Unfortunately, the cheerleading awards are not an isolated incident. They are part of a broader culture of body shaming, victim blaming, and harassment throughout KUSD.

Last year, KUSD students took aim at the district’s sexist dress code, which unfairly targeted female students by banning styles of clothing that they disproportionately wear such as leggings, yoga pants, and tank tops. The school board eventually bowed to student and community pressure by amending the dress code after female students testified about how teachers who enforced the dress code degraded them in front of their peers and forced them to miss out on classroom time.

Most recently, in December 2018, students at Bradford High School in KUSD were instructed to watch a movie as a part of their health curriculum in which a college freshman, Melissa, is drugged and raped by a fraternity brother. The students were then told to fill out a worksheet that asked, “What could have Melissa done differently to have avoided her sexual assault (provide at least 4 examples)?” This question squarely places the blame for a sexual assault on the female victim, rather than the male perpetrator who drugged and raped her.

On Tuesday, the ACLU sent a letter to KUSD raising concerns about the troubling pattern of victim-blaming and body shaming that these incidents represent. We argue that the district’s failure to respond appropriately violates federal and state laws that prohibit sex discrimination, including Title IX. That groundbreaking civil rights law, passed in 1972, requires schools to respond appropriately to incidents of gender-based violence and harassment and prohibits school officials from treating female students as sexual objects or blaming them for the harassment they face. Wisconsin’s Pupil Nondiscrimination Law contains similar prohibitions against sex discrimination.

Far too often, school districts look the other way when students file complaints regarding sexually degrading treatment. Yet if adolescents are taught that body shaming and harassment are acceptable, they will carry these messages with them for the rest of their lives. And if schools teach students that victims of gender-based violence are even partly at fault, how will we ever eradicate the workplace sexual harassment that the #MeToo movement has proven is rampant throughout the country?

That is why the ACLU is demanding mandatory anti-harassment training for all KUSD employees, including teachers and coaches, and that the district take immediate steps to reform its health curriculum to eliminate victim-blaming. Public educators who objectify female students’ bodies are not only conditioning girls and young women to normalize sexual harassment — they are also violating the law. We hope KUSD will step up and send the message loud and clear to its students, faculty, and staff that harassment and body shaming are no laughing matter.

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Nan Leppard

As a woman who was raped in HS, the victim blaming of that Health test sickens me. KUSD, you MUST do better. Shame on you for those cheerleader awards as well. We should be championing our young women, not ever poking fun.

Anonymous

Truth hurts

Jordan Smith

I went to tremper. In my health class we watched several videos of date rape, and women ending up in terrifying situations, and we were asked what SHE COULD HAVE DONE BETTER. This was in 2007. You had to be able to do booty pops to get on the dance squad. Every cheer or dance routine was hyper sexualized. None of this is new, people are just finally being taken seriously when they say this shit is demeaning to women.

Chris

This behavior is the most atrocious I have ever seen from a school district! I was an educator in Michigan, so you are all too close to be such an evil group of teachers, etc.

Anonymous

I don't completely agree with this assessment of body shaming. I have three daughters. I would not let them go to school in skin tight leggings, or yoga pants that show vividly their ass crack, and camel toe, or tight shirts that made their nipples show through, any more than I would let a boy wear skin tight pants that exaggerated their genitals. I told my daughters I would not let them go to school looking like a hooker. I don't care what the fashions are. As a young girl, boys are going to look at you. Clothing sends a message to them. You are at school to learn, not project your body like a billboard. Thats why schools have dress codes. If women want to wear skin tight, skimpy clothing, let them do it as adults. Teenagers don't need to show off, and exaggerate their bodies through their fashion choices at this age. My son doesn't wear leggings that show every ripple in his genitals. Girls should not either! I'm sorry, but fashion trends are for responsible adults, not teenagers who don't know they are sending a message that raging hormones are ripe to recieve!

Anonymous

Nope. Raging hormones ifs no excuse for a young man to act like a neanderthal.

Anonymous

Any chance a burkha will fit your daughters?

Anonymous

In your opinion are raging hormones a reason to rape cuz it sounds like that's what you believe and that is horrible

Stevens Point

Well they should make a class called "13 Reasons why" because this can cause a suicidal epidemic! Or teachers actually trying to have sex with students? So if white privilege is in affect in Wisconsin then I guess white society will keep doing whatever they want? Also like to add forcing children to go to schools like this is B.S. and this land we call America is not really free! How would you feel if elders told you what to do all the time. How to dress, how to act. I would not allow my children to go to this new world order school!! It falls back on who taught those in charge to pass down the teachings of now. White men are pigs when their fathers taught them to control everything,even their wives!

Anonymous

How did admins let this comment thru? This is quite possibly the dumbest thing I've ever read and has no correlation to the article

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