Five high school officials in Denver were put on administrative leave this week amid a police investigation into several disturbing videos of teenage cheerleaders wailing in pain while apparently being forced to perform leg splits.
The controversy that has engulfed East High School not even one week into the school year stems from pre-season practices organized by newly hired coach Ozell Williams, a Guinness World Record holder and former contestant on the NBC reality series “America’s Got Talent.”
The allegations involve at least eight young girls, according to Denver’s NBC affiliate, KUSA. In one clip obtained by the station, a 13-year-old incoming freshman shrieks “please stop” nine times during a span of 24 seconds.
School officials were provided the videos in June. Denver Police received an anonymous tip Wednesday and immediately assigned child-abuse detectives to the case, a spokesman told The Washington Post.
“This is an open case,” the official said in an email, “therefore no additional details or videos will be provided at this time.”
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg appealed for calm as police and the school district carry out their investigations, and he has sought to reassure angry students and parents that administrators are taking the matter seriously.
“We absolutely prohibit any practices that place our students’ physical and mental health in jeopardy,” Boasberg said in a prepared statement appearing on the school’s website. “We do not and will not allow any situation in which a student is forced to perform an activity or exercise beyond the point at which they express their desire to stop.”
Williams did not respond to a message left with his business, Mile High Tumblers, but told KUSA that he learned the split technique while in Chicago and New Orleans. He has been a regular halftime performer at Denver Broncos football games, and set the world record for consecutive handsprings — 57 — in 2013. His stint on “America’s Got Talent” came in 2015.
On his website, Williams offers some insight into his training philosophy. “Our mission,” it says, “is to develop strong athletes and well-rounded citizens by teaching discipline, responsibility, respect, sense of ownership and other characteristics that mimic upstanding citizenship.”
Kirsten Wakefield, whose 13-year-old daughter Ally is seen screaming in one of the videos, emailed the school district June 15 demanding to know what the administration would do about her daughter’s injury. KUSA reported an investigation began only after the news station made inquiries.
“This is a grown man,” Kirsten Wakefield told KUSA, “pushing my 13-year-old against her will.”
Another parent, Cheri Nickolay, said watching the videos made her ill. Her daughter has quit the cheerleading squad, she said, adding, “I don’t know how you could justify that.”
In addition to Williams and his assistant coach, Mariah Cladis, Principal Andy Mendelsberg and Assistant Principal Lisa Porter were put on leave, as was an attorney employed by the school district, Michael Hickman.
“This is standard practice in an investigation of this type,” Boasberg said. “It does not imply or prejudge in any way the actions of the individuals or what the investigation might determine.”
Another assistant principal, Jason Maclin, will oversee school operations during the investigation.
The district intends to share the results of its investigation as soon as possible, Boasberg said.