Bradford Community Church Unitarian Universalist leaders the Rev. Erik David Carlson and student intern minister Denise M. Cawley applaud the American Civil Liberties Union for their yearlong investigation of the Tremper High School cheerleading 2018 Awards Banquet and similar events at previous banquets, where coaches handed out gag awards to some students.
While some cheerleaders were lauded for students’ accomplishments, some were given awards based on their size and body parts. The ACLU condemned the coaches for harassment, calling for mandatory anti-harassment training for all employees.
In a letter to the Kenosha Unified School District, Carlson wrote, “We clergy of Bradford Community Church Unitarian Universalist (BradfordUU.org) condemn the actions of Tremper High School regarding the cheerleading banquet of 2018, similar events at previous banquets, and the entire culture surrounding the cheerleading team as reported by the ACLU and others.”
At their best, student athletics promote the essential life skills of physical health, perseverance, discipline and teamwork, explained Carlson and Cawley. At their worst, student athletics can reinforce damaging and oppressive cultural norms such as male supremacy, body shaming and the false binaries of gender and winners versus losers.
In their letter, Carlson and Cawley also recognized the leadership of the late Unitarian minister, the Rev. Henry Simmons, who also served as Kenosha’s Superintendent of Schools as well as helping to start the city’s public library system.
Kenosha Unitarians called their first female minister in 1901, under whose leadership the current church was built. The Rev. Dr. Florence Buck’s first calling was as an educator: she taught high school science before becoming a minister, and education was a constant theme in her work.
“Rev. Henry Simmons and Rev. Dr. Florence Buck advocated for gender equity in the form of suffrage, civic and community involvement and faith leadership,” said Carlson. “Over 100 years ago these clergy and the Unitarian church was far more progressive and empowering of women of all ages than the current Tremper faculty and staff appear to be.”
As Unitarian Universalists, Carlson explained they believe in upholding the worth and dignity of every person, regardless of gender identity, physical ability, ethnic or cultural background, personal attributes or any of the other surface-level differences so often used to divide rather than unite.
“What was perhaps most concerning to us as UU clergy was not even the appalling content of the cheerleading banquet but the denial on the part of school leadership that this was a problem and pointed to larger, systemic attitudes toward women within and outside the school,” he said. “At their worst, competitive athletics can reinforce damaging cultural attitudes including those of male supremacy, sexism and gender discrimination. Celebrating the end of an athletic season by focusing on physical attributes of participants rather than the skills, leadership and contributions to team success of the individual athletes lets our young women know that they are valued for what they look like rather than what they accomplish. We have long stood in opposition to this false and oppressive narrative of how we assess a person’s worth and, though saddened by the situation at Tremper, are not surprised that this archaic and hurtful dynamic still exists in our public education system.”
A vital tenant of the Unitarian Universalist faith is in honoring the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and in the case of Tremper, especially the children, explained Cawley.
“I am calling for the leadership of Kenosha Unified Schools to undergo training in gender equality, body positivity and to complete a restorative justice process for the cheerleaders of the team,” she said. “Our faith, Unitarian Universalism, has long been one that stands up for all disenfranchised people and one that defends the Bill of Rights.”
As a parent, Cawley said she sends her child to school to learn and grow in a safe place. She wonders how children can be expected to bring innovation, peace and leadership to the world if school activities treat them like sexualized objects rather than respected humans.
“I am concerned that the awards this year are banning parents from participating,” she said. “The school has not earned the trust to be alone with these students during a banquet. I want to see the school board members and the principal monitoring these events with love and respect. Our children are treasures and we need to treat them like jewels.”Youth group session
What: Bradford Community Church Unitarian Universalist invites all interested students, parents and teachers regardless of faith or origin to participate in a special youth group session dedicated to body image at the congregation.
When: 6 p.m. March 13
Where: 5810 Eighth Ave.