Coaches will not be handing out special gag awards at a banquet that celebrates Tremper High School cheerleaders’ accomplishments next month following accusations of body shaming, sexual harassment and discrimination.
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union, following nearly a yearlong investigation, notified the Kenosha Unified School District of concerns by parents and a former coach that the awards presented at last year’s banquet not only designated the most improved or hardest-working players, but also awarded girls based on their body parts, according to the ACLU letter to KUSD obtained by the Kenosha News.
According to the ACLU, Tremper Principal Steve Knecht had previously been made aware of the situation.
Among the awards given out were: “Big Booty,” a distinction given the cheerleader with the largest butt; a “Big Boobie” for the largest breasts; and a “String Bean” award to the thinnest team member.
According to ACLU attorneys investigating the complaint, the event has given out such awards for at least the last five years, and about 100 people attend the banquet annually, including family members, friends and others associated with the district.
Coaches in a video obtained by the organization go on to tell the girl who received the Big Booty Award, “We love her butt. Everybody loves her butt,” as she made her way through a crowd.
The awards were also given out in 2017 at a similar banquet where one cheerleader received a blond wig as an award as she was deemed a “ditzy girl”, according to the letter.
Former coach recalls ‘emotionally stressful’ culture
Following the banquet last year, a former track coach with Tremper, Patti Hupp, emailed Knecht saying that she felt she needed to tell him about what occurred “for the protection of these girls.” The correspondence was obtained by the ACLU through an open records request.
”I don’t think it takes much to see that this is extremely degrading to women,” said Patti Hupp, who has since left the district, in her email to the principal.
The ACLU said the same coach contacted one of the cheerleading coaches directly about her concerns on April 24, 2018.
“The last thing these high school girls need is a fellow woman in their lives communicating to them that they are objects or that their appearance is something to be gawked at, demeaned, laughed at, or even awarded for that matter,” Hupp stated in her email.
Patti Uttech, the cheer coach responded two days later saying, “I honestly don’t feel that I need to explain myself about how we ran our banquet. Actually we have run it this way for years and have never had a problem.”
According to ACLU documents, in an April 28, 2018, email to the cheerleading coaches, Knecht said that Tremper had received complaints about the awards from four different people and that he would launch an investigation into the allegations.
One parent who was persistent about following up with him said Knecht reported he could find no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the coaches.
According to the ACLU documentation, Knecht did not provide the parent with justification for his finding nor indication of which school policies or procedures he relied upon for the alleged investigation.
When the parent insisted he had missed something, he responded that the awards “were meant to be funny” and the coaches were “just joking around,” according to the letter.
Hupp, who was contacted by the Kenosha News Tuesday, said in the four years she worked at Tremper as the only female head coach the culture created in the building was “not the best for women and girls.”
“I’ve felt that. I was not treated as a woman coach should be,” she said. “I want to stress, I don’t mean that in a sexual nature whatsoever. By that I mean, I was not respected,” said Hupp who left because her husband found a job in Louisville, Ky., and her son is now attending college nearby.
“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that as a result of that (culture) it wasn’t emotionally stressful. ... I had not planned on leaving,” she said.
She said she was not only disappointed at how the district has handled the matter.
“I’m disgusted with the cheer coaches and the with the Kenosha parents that sat there and said and did nothing,” said Hupp, who reported the banquet activity after another parent who was there described what had happened.
Parents also notified district administration about the the cheer leading banquet including, Sue Valeri, chief of student leadership. Valeri later met with a parent who reported the actions of the coaches, but Valeri echoed Knecht’s sentiments, according to the documentation.
The records request, however, revealed that a Unified human resources official met with Uttech May 8 to discuss the banquet. The official later directed the coach to write letters of apology to the students who received the gag awards and to submit her letter of resignation by June 14, 2018.
Human resources advised that Knecht would need to make a determination with the coach’s replacement as to how much involvement the former cheerleading coach would have with students, but recommended that if she had any the “interaction be minimum and your role remains largely behind the scene.”
An Aug. 14 memo from Knecht to Valeri and Superintendent Sue Savaglio-Jarvis detailed the meeting between human resources and Uttech, who had reportedly apologized, but declined to resign. According to the memo, Knecht said the coach was welcomed back to “co-coach” with her replacement. However, she has continued to directly coach the cheer leading squad for the 2018-19 academic year, according to the ACLU.
Uttech could not be reached for comment.
‘A troubling trend of incidents’
According to the ACLU, a parent reported that in previous years, coaches made comments about girls’ vaginas during the banquet and that they “regularly engaged in harassing language” toward cheerleaders at practices. They said students have left practice in tears, felt shamed about their bodies and have even quit.
Tanya Ruder, Unified spokeswoman said the district was “not at liberty to share personnel matters,” with regard to the complaints about administration and the coaching staff.
“In regard to the Tremper incident, a clear expectation has been set that awards of this nature are not acceptable and are not to be given at Tremper cheerleading banquets going forward,” she said.
But the incident at the banquet isn’t the first time the district has been embroiled cases in which harassment, blaming the victim and body shaming has been involved according to ACLU Attorney Asma Kadri-Keeler, one of the attorneys who called for the district to take immediate corrective action.
In December, the district launched an investigation at Bradford High School when students in a health class were asked to answer assignment questions after watching a video about sexual assault. One of the questions read: “What could Melissa have done differently to have avoided her sexual assault (provide at least four examples)?”
Parents on social media posted that the assignment and the question that followed students viewing the “Freshman Fall” scene of the 1996 TV movie “She Cried No” was inappropriate and promoted victim blaming. They also wondered what was being done about the health curriculum.
Kadri-Keeler said the ACLU is asking for a commitment from the district to discipline staff involved with the banquet awards, and administrators “who failed to take adequate corrective action” despite the complaints.
The ACLU has called on the district to institute mandatory anti-harassment training for all of its employees, including teachers, coaches and administrative staffand to release findings of its investigation involving Bradford’s health curriculum.The organization has asked the district to respond by March 1 before it considers available legal remedies to insure that Unified “establishes a safe and equitable learning environment for all students,” she said.
While district officials did not comment on personnel or training, Ruder said the health curriculum has since eliminated the use of the video for the class. Immediately following that incident, district officials had also apologized to parents and students.
”The findings of the investigation revealed that the curriculum is not the issue, but rather the resource utilized was the issue and this resource has since been removed as an option for use,” Ruder said.
Kadri-Keeler said, however, the district has been involved in a troubling trend of incidents involving sexual harassment and discrimination with a history of not addressing matters promptly. The ACLU has also been involved with students and parents in Unified over the matter of the district’s dress code which they said unfairly singled out young women, particularly, those who wore yoga pants to class. The matter took more than a year to resolve.
”What we’re asking for is a commitment from the district to institute some mandatory anti-harassment training district wide. This is not the first time the district has looked the other that swept sex discrimination under the rug,” she said.
For Kadri-Keeler, the matter is also one that hits home because she is product of Unified.
”I’m worried. I had a good experience cycling through the KUSD system. I don’t know if it’s a lack of commitment on their part, but we are very concerned about how the district treats students based on their sex and with sex discrimination,” she said. “We don’t want one of the largest districts in the state to keep furthering that problem. It’s extremely troubling.”