January 9, 2007
Cheerleaders Tell Their Side: National Infamy is Undeserved, They Say
DALLAS _ It took only a moment to snap the photo that made the "Fab Five" famous. Now, they would do anything to erase that moment.
The five McKinney North High School cheerleaders, each in uniform and holding phallus-shaped candles, thought it would be funny to pose for the picture inside a condom store _ a harmless joke for their friends to see on MySpace."We will never live it down," says Elizabeth Griffin, seen in her former role as a McKinney North High School cheerleader. She graduated early and is now headed to college.
They never imagined it might cost one of their mothers her job as high school principal and, then, thrust them into the latest national debate over the questionable behavior of popular teenage girls.
"It was a stupid mistake," Elizabeth Griffin, 18, one of the cheerleaders, told The Dallas Morning News on Saturday. "We will never live it down, but we never thought about that at the time."
The cheerleaders and their parents spoke out for the first time because, they say, the national media has spun a story portraying the girls as drunken, mean, sex-crazed and out of control.
Everyone agrees the five made some bad decisions, but they fall far short of fitting the bullying stereotype described on national talk shows, according to their parents.
Some of the parents wanted to remain anonymous out of concern for their daughters' safety.
"We don't think we are perfect parents, and we know our daughter has made mistakes," said the father of one cheerleader who spoke to The News on the condition that he and his family not be named. "We try the best that we can."
The girls and their families have been under scrutiny since cheerleading coach Michaela Ward resigned three months ago. She said she quit because administrators thwarted her efforts to discipline a small group of unruly girls, whom many have dubbed the "Fab Five."
Principal Linda Theret's daughter Karrissa was among the group, which the teenagers say primarily included four girls.
Theret, who resigned under an agreement before Christmas, canceled a scheduled interview Saturday. Bob Hinton, her attorney, said she wasn't ready to talk. But he asserted that Karrissa and the other girls' behavior wasn't unusual.
"This is conduct nobody is proud of, but they didn't kill Kennedy," Hinton said. "Seventeen-year-olds are not supposed to have adult judgment yet. They almost never do. They have to learn from their mistakes."
Dallas attorney Harry Jones, hired by McKinney School District as an outside investigator, compiled a 70-page report about the situation. It included several tales of alleged bad behavior: The girls posted suggestive pictures on the Internet. Some of them skipped school. Others talked back to teachers.
"I'm sure it was imperfectly done," Jones said Saturday, "but it captured the truth of what I heard and viewed."
Much of the report has been blown out of proportion or taken out of context, the girls said.
They said they stopped in the condom store only to pass the time before a photo shoot for a football program last summer. The picture was a clerk's idea, they said.
"We were thinking no one would ever see this except good friends," said one of the girls who quit the squad. "It was just a joke. We weren't serious at all. It just got out of hand because everyone saw it."
Someone spotted that photo and other pictures of students drinking and smoking on MySpace and sent the images to Theret.
The "Fab Five" girls interviewed by The News said most of the group was not in the photos of students drinking and posing in sexually suggestive ways.
"There were kids from all different sports at all three McKinney high schools in those photos," Elizabeth said.
The girls say they often joked with their younger teachers, especially Ward. The report said they talked back to adults, but the girls said that Ward seemed to understand they were joking.
"She always acted like she was our friend," said the girl who quit the squad.
Ward, 26, said Saturday that she wasn't buddy-buddy with the girls.
"The girls and I were never friends. We never had that sort of relationship," said Ward, who stressed that her problem was that administrators didn't back her up.
The report also faulted the girls for skipping class. Elizabeth said that Ward and other teachers always let them leave cheerleading class if they weren't working out that day.
"We didn't feel like we were skipping class at all because it was something we had done for four years," Elizabeth said.
The report also questioned whether some of the girls were drunk when they showed up to the homecoming dance in October.
Elizabeth said that some kids were drinking but that the group of cheerleaders was not. They had learned their lesson by then, she said. Some of the parents took their children to a hospital after the dance to prove they weren't drunk.
In the last week, the national media has seized on the story, often comparing the cheerleaders to characters in the 2004 movie "Mean Girls."
The girls say they don't even know one girl who went on national TV and accused them of bullying. She attends another school, they said.
The cheerleaders admit they've messed up, but they deny they are mean people. Some of them are honor students. Others volunteered at shelters after Hurricane Katrina.
"I've done charity work with these girls," the mother of another cheerleader said. "I've stayed up all night seeing them work at shelters."
The mother said she's annoyed that Jones questioned parents' behavior in the report and on TV.
For the most part, the parents say they never heard from the school about discipline problems before this year.
"She would be punished big time if I thought she was being mean to people," said the mother of the girl who quit the squad.
The parents say they resent the accusation that they don't draw boundaries for their kids. The parents of the girl who quit said they punished their daughter when she was spotted in one of the drinking photos. They declined to identify the punishment.
Their daughter said "80 percent of my school drinks."
Jones said Saturday that he wishes the families well, saying the kids' behavior didn't shock him as much as it appears to have shocked the media.
"I really wasn't faulting the kids' behavior so much as trying to determine whether the adults did their jobs," he said.
After his report was released, the district reached an agreement that gives Theret about $75,000 and a recommendation letter.
Richard Brunner, an assistant principal ensnared in this case, is fighting to keep his job. The board recently told him that it doesn't plan to renew his contract. He is on leave with pay.
The four girls at the center of the controversy are no longer on the squad. Elizabeth and Karrissa graduated early and are headed to college. The other two girls will finish their senior year at the school.
The girls and their parents say the experience has taught them a valuable lesson _ albeit one they didn't ask for: There are consequences for everything, even things that seem harmless at the time.
"I don't have a senior year," Elizabeth said. "I might have made some bad decisions like the picture and staying in the group at homecoming, but it's taught me a lot about how life is. I've learned a lot from it."
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