Ooltewah cheerleaders' lawsuit dismissed

Ooltewah cheerleaders' lawsuit dismissed

August 2nd, 2011 by Kate Harrison Belz in News

U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Three girls kicked off Ooltewah High School's cheerleading squad last fall for underage drinking were not deprived of their constitutional rights or victims of sex discrimination, a federal court judge ruled Monday.

In a 25-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice dismissed a lawsuit filed by the girls' parents against the Hamilton County Department of Education, Ooltewah Principal Mark Bean and cheerleading coach Kelly Peterson in December.

Parents JoDee Crumley, Tommy and Jennifer Smith, and Valerie and Todd Jones -- who were represented by attorney Curtis Bowe -- accused the school of trying to interfere with the girls' private lives, of an unlawful discipline process and for punishing the girls for misdeeds male athletes in the system had never been punished for.

The attorneys involved in the case did not return calls for comment Monday evening, and attempts to reach the former cheerleaders' parents were unsuccessful.

According to court records, the teen girls, referred to as "B.P.," "H.S." and "K.J.," had attended a Halloween party last October where there was underage drinking. Afterward, the girls were riding in a car with a group when police pulled it over and arrested two other cheerleaders for underage drinking.

Though B.P., H.S. and K.J. were not charged with underage drinking, they were later approached by Peterson and Bean and questioned about the incident. The girls admitted to drinking at the party and were then kicked off the team, according to court documents.

In their complaint, the girls' parents said the principal and the coach violated the girls' First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of association by trying to punish them for going to the party and dressing in racy costumes.

"Conspiratorial conduct, sanctioned by [the Department of Education] was designed to squash that free speech and bring student-athletes and students at OHS into line through fear of reprisal," the complaint stated.

But Bean and Peterson, who were represented by attorneys Scott Bennett and James Exum, maintained that they were following school policy and a specially crafted "constitution" for the cheerleading team, which states that anyone caught drinking will be punished to the point of being kicked off the squad.

In his ruling, Mattice asserted the girls were punished because "they admitted to underage drinking -- not because they were at the Halloween party, or because they were wearing particular costumes."

In the sex discrimination allegations, the girls cited a situation at Signal Mountain Middle High School in which male members of the football team were caught drinking underage and not punished.

But Mattice said the comparison to the Signal Mountain football players had "no bearing" on Bean and Peterson's choice to follow set disciplinary measures at Ooltewah.

Lastly, the girls claimed their constitutional rights of due process were violated because of the chain of events that led from their questioning to their dismissal from the team.

But Mattice ruled with the defendants, who contended that "there is no constitutional right to participate in high school athletics and, therefore, no hearing prior to dismissal from an athletic team is required."

Contact Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.