Videos showing multiple high school cheerleaders crying out in pain while being held by their coach and others in the splits position have led to an investigation by Denver Police and the placement of five public school employees on administrative leave.
According to KUSA-TV, which broke the story early Thursday, East High administrators have had access to at least one such video since June and have received complaints from some of the girls' parents for months. But Denver Public Schools Supt. Tom Boasberg said in a statement Thursday that he just learned about the issue that day and that the school system would be conducting its own investigation into the matter.
"In order to conduct a fair and thorough investigation, we have placed East principal Andy Mendelsberg, East assistant principal Lisa Porter, East cheer Coach Ozell Williams, East assistant cheer coach Mariah Cladis and DPS Deputy General Counsel Michael Hickman on leave," Boasberg's statement read.
"This is standard practice in an investigation of this type. It does not imply or prejudge in any way the actions of the individuals or what the investigation might determine."
East cheerleader Ally Wakefield is seen in one video apparently being physically forced to do the splits, despite crying out nine times in less than 24 seconds for those holding her to "please, stop."
Wakefield told KUSA that Williams "was pushing down on the back of my right leg" and "pushing with his other knee on my back to try to keep my posture straight."
"It was tearing my ligament and my muscle at the same time," she said.
Her mother, Kristen Wakefield, said: "This is a grown man pushing my 13-year-old girl so hard against her will while she's crying and screaming for him to stop that he's ripping tissues in her body."
KUSA reported Friday that Williams had been fired as a cheerleading consultant at Boulder (Colo.) High last year, also for forcing girls to do the splits.The station also spoke to a Brighton gym owner who decided against working with Williams after watching him interact with children in her program.
If team members missed a stunt in practice, Williams would berate them, saying, "'I'm going to punch you in the face if you don't do it next time,'" Julie Ledbetter said. "You don't tell kids you're going to punch them in the face if they can't pull the skill."
In its report, KUSA said it received eight total videos of East cheerleaders and their "similar screams of pain."
Eric Wakefield, Ally's father, told the New York Post he hasn't been able to sleep since seeing the videos.
Former cheerleader Anna Nickolay wasn't in any of those videos but told KUSA that she and other teammates had been treated the same way. She showed her mother one such video of a teammate to her mother.
"That made me sick to my stomach," Cheri Nickolay told KUSA. "I don't know how you could justify that."
At the end of his statement on Thursday, Boasberg added a personal comment:
"With regards to certain videos, I cannot state strongly enough — as the superintendent of the school district and as the father of two high school-aged daughters — that the images and actions depicted are extremely distressing and absolutely contrary to our core values as a public school community."
Aug. 25, 7:35 a.m.: This post was updated details of Williams' employment history and a comment from gym owner Julie Ledbetter.