by Richard W. Millar, Jr.
High school days are traumatic and dramatic. Sometimes it’s hard to tell trauma and drama apart and the differences, if indeed there are any, are particularly blurred when parents become involved.
My mother had a definitive, but not entirely unique, view of high school. It could be summed up in one word: avoidance. Both my brother and I—we had no other siblings—were shipped off to boarding academies for the durations, excluding summer vacation which I am sure she viewed as entirely too long.
In those days parental interference in prep school activities was non-existent. The implied threat that “if you don’t like what we’re doing, take Junior somewhere else,” served to silence even the most intrusive parents.
Public high schools do not have that alternative and thus face the gamut from parents who don’t know or care where their kids are to those who want to run the school. Sports seem to bring out the worst in fathers and mothers—well it’s hard to beat cheerleading.
I am not sure why being a cheerleader is so all-fired important, but then again I am not a mother and my daughter never expressed any interest in joining a squad so I am clearly in no position to judge. But to some it is very important; federal case important.
Particularly to the mother of Samantha Sanches. Miss Sanches sued her high school district for sex discrimination and retaliation in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas because, horror of horrors, she didn’t make the varsity cheerleading squad. When she lost, she appealed. The Court of Appeals summed up the case thusly: “Reduced to its essentials, this is nothing more than a dispute, fueled by a disgruntled cheerleader mom, over whether her daughter should have made the squad. It is a petty squabble, masquerading as a civil rights matter, that has no place in federal court or any other court.”
Those folks in Texas don’t mince words.
It all started when a senior girl identified only by the initials J.H. was suspended from cheerleading for a week “for posting inappropriate Facebook photos.” J.H. believed that Sanches’s mother had turned the photos over to school administrators and J.H. threatened to get even. Mom reported the threat to the school. On the same day, Mom also sent emails to the school accusing another senior cheerleader (Miss Sanches was a junior) identified as K.O. of hazing for reading a letter to the cheer class discussing her “frustration with the team and some of the cheerleaders’ parents.” Mom intuitively thought K.O.’s letter was aimed at her. Another email claimed that three senior cheerleaders (identified as K.O., J.H., and M.W.) were guilty of hazing because they “announced” that the tryouts would be “as hard as possible so the juniors won’t make it.”
It probably didn’t help that Miss Sanches was dating “C.P.” who was J.H.’s ex-boyfriend which apparently led to J.H. referring to Miss Sanches as a “ho.” Miss Sanches predictably called her mother who, equally predictably, called the school administration.
The mother’s lawyer in high dudgeon then wrote a six page letter to the superintendent “complaining of a range of activity,” causing the Court to observe that she had “a long history of complaining about . . . [the] cheerleading program in general and . . .” the treatment of her daughter in particular. The letter suggested relief including the idea that her daughter should leapfrog tryouts and be automatically put on the varsity squad.
By this time the district lawyered up and told Mom that the tryouts would proceed as scheduled, that it would be judged by unbiased judges unaffiliated with the school and that if it was difficult, it would be equally difficult for all participants. (I never knew there were roving cheerleader judges who would come calling if there were disputatious parents, nor can I imagine why anyone would want such a job, but I digress.)
It will come as no surprise to learn that Miss Sanches did not make varsity. Her parents then filed a 10 page “grievance” with the school district seeking, again, that their daughter be placed on the varsity squad. The district declined and the parents appealed. The district denied the appeal, but the parents then appealed to the district’s Board of Trustees which denied this “final” appeal. Miss Sanches then sued the district. The magistrate judge to whom the matter was referred granted summary judgment to the district. Miss Sanches filed a motion to vacate which the district court denied and she thereafter appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking, you might say, another bite at this well-bitten apple.
The appellate court upheld the summary judgment observing that the case involved “the sort of unpleasant conflict that takes place every day in high schools and that it is not the proper stuff of a federal harassment claim.” The court also did not give “high fives” to her lawyers: “Not content to raise this issue of law in a professional manner, Sanches and her attorneys launched an unjustified attack on . . .” the Magistrate Judge. The attack included “sentences that are so poorly written that it is difficult to decipher what the attorneys mean, but any plausible reading is troubling . . .” In a footnote the court added: “Usually we do not comment on technical and grammatical errors, because anyone can make such an occasional mistake, but here the miscues are so egregious and obvious that an average fourth grader would have avoided most of them.”
The apparent lesson here is that if you are going to take up your pom poms in support of an irate cheerleader’s mother, you better have a fourth grader proofread your brief.
Millar is a member of the firm of Millar, Hodges & Bemis in Newport Beach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.