For the second time in recent years, the American Civil Liberties Union is accusing the Kenosha (Wisconsin) Unified School District of creating a hostile environment for female students. This comes after parents complained that Tremper High School cheerleading coaches bestowed “Big Boobie” and “Big Booty” awards at their annual banquet, and teachers at Bradford High suggested in a health lesson that sexual assault victims were to blame for their attacks.
The ACLU of Wisconsin and the national ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project sent a letter to the district this week demanding officials address the issues or face a federal lawsuit.
“There is a serious indifference to how young girls are being treated within the KUSD system,” ACLU Wisconsin attorney Asma Kadri Keeler said. “And that indifference is creating a toxic culture of perpetuating gender stereotypes that will stay with these girls for the rest of their lives.”
District spokeswoman Tanya Ruder said in a statement that “awards of this nature are not acceptable” and will not be presented at future Tremper cheerleading banquets. But she declined to comment further, calling it a personnel matter.
She said the offending health lesson has been removed from the district’s curriculum.
The letter follows a months-long investigation by the ACLU, opened after parents complained about the body-shaming gag awards given out at the 2018 awards banquet.
In addition to the traditional “most-improved” and “hardest-worker” honors, it said, coaches doled out the “Big Boobie” award for the cheerleader with the biggest breasts, the “Big Booty” award for the girl with the largest buttocks and the “String Bean” award for the skinniest girl.
The awards were presented in front of more than 150 people, according to the letter. One parent said coaches “laughed hysterically” when handing out the “Big Boobie” award, incredulous that the girl could “maneuver through cheer routines with her ‘enormous boobs.’ ” And it cited video footage of the coaches giving out the “Big Booty” award, telling the crowd, “We love her butt. Everybody loves her butt.”
The ACLU said similar awards were handed out at the 2017 banquet, and that one parent alleged coaches in past years had commented on the girls’ vaginas. It said the cheerleading coaches had routinely used harassing language with the girls during practices, sending them away in tears about their bodies, and that some girls quit as a result.
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“The objectifying awards are just one example of a broader culture of body shaming, victim blaming, and harassment throughout KUSD,” the ACLU said in the letter.
At least one other coach at the school raised concerns about the gag awards, according to emails obtained by the ACLU.
“I don’t think it takes much to see that this is extremely degrading to women,” the coach wrote in an April 23, 2018, email to Tremper principal Steve Knecht.
The same coach also emailed one of the cheerleading coaches, writing, “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.”
The cheerleading coach defended the awards banquet, saying, “we have ran (sic) this way for years and have never had a problem,” according to the letter.
The ACLU said Knecht also deflected criticism, saying the awards were “meant to be funny” and the coaches were “just joking around.”
It said a Kenosha human resources official directed the head coach to send letters of apology to the recipients of the gag awards and to submit her resignation by June 14, 2018. The coach refused to step down, and Knecht told her she was welcome to return as a co-coach, it said, and she continues to “directly coach” the cheerleading squad.
It’s not the first time Kenosha Unified has been accused of discriminating against students.
The ACLU has raised concerns since 2017 that it is enforcing its dress code in ways that discriminate against female students. And last year, the district paid $800,000 to settle a lawsuit with Ash Whitaker, a transgender student, who accused it of discriminating against him.