Forth WorthStar-Telegram, May 29, 1999

Grand Prairie (TX) School Board: Paddling encourages good citizenship
By Jessie Milligan, Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Do school policies favor male athletes over cheerleaders? Mike Page started asking this question when his daughter was paddled and removed from the cheerleading team for smoking a cigarette. He's still waiting for an answer. It doesn't take Dad long to find what he is looking for in the storage room of his Fort Worth home. Over and over in the past few months, he has thought a lot about trophies, tiaras and the unfair treatment of young girls.

He spots the 1982 Miss Texas Star Best Party Dress award. It's right next to the StarLight Baby 1982 Winner trophy. Mike Page grabs those out of storage, along with a couple of tiny tiaras won by his daughter, Amber Page, when she was just 1 year old.

She is 17 now, with a stream of trophies and straight-A report cards behind her. Something catches in his throat. After a lifetime of pageants and pompons, after a lifetime of applause, suddenly it feels as if so much of it is gone, smacked out of her with a paddle.

She did something wrong. Dad knows that. But the punishment seems too severe.

Amber Page, selected to be captain of the Class of 2000 varsity cheer team when school starts Aug. 16 at South Grand Prairie High School, was kicked off the squad after an assistant principal caught her smoking a cigarette in the school parking lot one day last spring.

An officer of the Grand Prairie Police Department gave her a $135 citation for being a minor in possession of tobacco, a misdemeanor.

Two male administrators took her into an office where one of them paddled her in private, as is district policy.

To protect student confidentiality, school district officials will not comment in detail on the specifics of Amber's situation. Grand Prairie School Board President Norris "Stretch" Rideaux says the board agreed in closed session to uphold the administration's treatment of Amber to encourage good citizenship among students.

Dad is fuming.

"No way would they do this to a quarterback," he says.

After Amber was paddled, television cameras and newspaper reporters went to the school. In a year filled with horrible violence on American campuses, public attention turned to how kids are treated at school. Violence in movies, in the news, and on video games surely plays a part. But are there more subtle influences? Do we teach kids to disrespect government? Are we too quick to hit them? Do we use humiliation to control them?

Mike Page took a week off of work as a grocer in Irving to try to persuade school administrators to change their minds about removing his daughter from the squad.

He ended up with more questions than answers.

"Would they spank a 17-year-old male cheerleader?" he wonders. "How can they be so hard on a kid who makes a mistake?"

He sets "Miss StarLight" and "Miss Texas Star" on the hearth of the brick fireplace in the family room of the home where he lives alone. Amber lives with her mom in Grand Prairie.

He wants to look at the trophies for a while as he wonders what to do next. The baby pageant trophies look a little tarnished these days. Once in a while, he cries. He couldn't love his blond, blue-eyed daughter any more than he already does, and he hates that she is hurting.

Here's how Amber's dream unraveled:

It was Friday, April 30. Amber met a big group of friends in the school parking lot. She says a lot of the kids were smoking cigarettes.

She was standing with her back toward the school when a friend told her "Hey, Amber, Mr. Pecor is coming." She thought her friends were pulling her leg.

Assistant Principal David Pecor pointed at her, and gestured for her to come to the office with him.

In the South Grand Prairie High School book of rules, cheerleaders caught smoking can earn 16 to 30 demerits. Thirty demerits are enough to kick a student off the cheerleading squad. In meetings with various assistant principals that day, Amber was told her offense earned her 30 demerits. She was given a choice: two swats with a paddle or two days of in-school suspension in a room Amber calls "the dungeon," a room in the basement of the school where students spend time in isolation. Amber chose the paddle.

Administrators called Mike Page, just as they are supposed to do before they paddle a student.

"There is no way I want you to do that to my daughter!" Page says he told them. Mike Page argued and yelled, but he was told those were the rules and Amber made the choice. Finally, he says, he relented.

Friday passed without punishment. On Monday, Amber got ready for school with dread. She put on four pairs of shorts, then covered them with a pair of overalls. She wanted the extra padding.

When she went to the school office, she was told she'd be kicked off the squad. She started to cry. She wasn't paddled that day.

Amber says this was her first offense. She suggested that her punishment be constructive, and volunteered to teach anti-smoking classes to younger students. Her suggestion, she says, was turned down.

That doesn't make sense, she thought: "What are they trying to teach me?"

On May 7, a week after she was seen smoking, school officials called her back into the administrative offices. The door was closed. Assistant Principals Mike Cook and Benny Reed were there. Amber remembers wishing a woman was in the room.

"That's the least they should do," she says.

Grand Prairie requires that two administrators be present. Gender is not taken into account. Amber was wearing a short denim skirt. One of the principals picked up the paddle. Amber says she was hit twice.

In a special school board meeting, Mike Page pleaded with the board to grant his daughter a reprieve and allow her to remain on the cheerleading squad. Other cheerleaders attended the meeting and told the board that neither they nor Amber were aware of the consequences of smoking.

The board discussed the issue in a closed meeting, then voted to uphold the administration's action.

All those years of preparing came to an abrupt end. The week after school was out, Amber Page cried when all her friends went off to cheerleading camp. She heard that the cheerleaders elected the Pecor twins -- Brooke and Leslie -- to be the new cheerleading squad captain and the assistant. The Pecor twins are the daughters of the assistant principal who caught Amber smoking. She says she loves the twins dearly. They have cheered together for three years. They lifted her over their heads as she performed difficult gymnastic stunts. They caught her when she fell.

Was South Grand Prairie too hard on Amber Page?

The Pages think so, and have retained an attorney.

The school's code of conduct and its cheerleader guidelines say smoking on campus is an offense that can result in a range of punishment, the harshest of which includes removal from the squad and paddling. Administrators could have opted for less severe measures such as counseling or parent conferences.

Amber's punishment may seem severe to outside observers. But paddling is an accepted form of student discipline in about half of the school districts in the Metroplex, including all of Dallas.

"My goodness," said state Rep. Harold Dutton of Houston, vice chairman of the Texas House of Representatives Public Education committee when he heard about the punishment. "Do they only want perfect children on their squad?"

Although Dutton thought Amber's punishment was severe, he said he is not opposed to paddling as a form of student punishment.

What rankles Mike Page is his belief that cheerleaders are treated more harshly than other athletes at the school. School officials, including district spokesman Sam Buchmeyer, say a written policy exists for male athletes participating in other sports, but they couldn't locate it when asked for a copy.

Page's anger grew when he heard that the coaches in the district are proposing a more lenient policy for student athletes than for cheerleaders. Student athletes caught smoking would be suspended for 10 days on a first offense if the school board votes to accept a revised policy at its meeting Thursday.

Mike Page says he wishes his daughter had been offered the same 10-day suspension instead of what he says is a "life sentence."

South Grand Prairie High School cheerleaders follow a code written in 1995 by parents and cheerleading coaches. The code states that cheerleaders are representatives of the school and should have "higher standards" of behavior than other students.

Grand Prairie Superintendent David Barbosa said that the question of whether the district treated Amber fairly is really a moot point.

"Everybody wanted cheerleaders held to a higher standard than other organizations," Barbosa said.

District policy allows parents, students and teachers involved in each extracurricular activity to set their own standard of behavior. Everybody agrees in writing to abide by the rules of their organization.

Amber signed the agreement three years in a row, Barbosa says.

Amber says she signed the code of conduct, but she says the consequences were not specific.

"It is somewhat hard to believe that she wasn't aware," Barbosa said.

That difference in standards makes sense to some of the people behind the pompons.

"As a cheerleader, you are not just football, not just baseball, you are year around. You never fade off into the background," says Southern Methodist University Spirit coordinator Darren McCoy. "You don't have a helmet on, you aren't way out in left field. You are in front of the stands, and people relate to you as an individual.

"In the schools I went to, the grade-point requirement was always higher for me as a cheerleader than it was for football players," he said.

But is the "higher standard" fair?

In response to complaints by Mike Page, administrators in the Grand Prairie school district say they will have a task force look at how discipline policies differ among sports and other extracurricular activities. Superintendent Barbosa said it will take at least six months for the district to review its policies.

The district doesn't believe it is discriminating on a gender basis. South Grand Prairie Senior High School has two male cheerleaders, said Buchmeyer, the district spokesman.

Amber says she plans to keep her grades up so she can go to college and be a cheerleader again.

"I love to perform," she says. "I love the responsibility. I want to be a leader. I realize I made a mistake."

Although Amber says she's not as excited about her senior year now, her dad says she'll pull through.

"She's such a good girl," he says.

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