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Spoof by Athletes in Drag Banned at School in Irvine : Tradition: Teachers’ complaints that skits demean women lead to cancellation at Woodbridge High.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to teachers’ complaints that a traditional homecoming spoof of cheerleaders is lewd and demeaning to women, the Woodbridge High School Student Council on Thursday banned the annual performance by football players and other boys from this year’s pep rally.

Faced with a state law and school district policy implemented last year to prohibit sexual harassment on campus, the associated students chose to curtail the performance, in which boys don miniskirts and balloon-filled bikini tops, then mimic the cheerleaders’ dances and stunts.

Most student council members said they see nothing wrong with the annual spoof, which attracts far more enthusiasm than any other pep rally, but simply wanted to quell the controversy.

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Woodbridge Principal Greg Cops said he stayed out of the debate to give students a chance to democratically decide a sensitive and difficult issue.

“All we are is microcosms of society. If it’s happening out there, it’s happening in here,” he said. “Where is poking fun and where is harassment? Where is the line between those two things? . . . It’s a classic debate, it’s a great debate, it’s a learning debate.”

Each year since the school was founded in 1980, about a dozen boys from each class have painted their faces, dressed as cheerleaders and performed at the indoor pep rally, which this year is taking place Oct. 21. In four separate skits, the groups compete to see who can win the most response.

In some years, girls have also dressed up as football players for the rally. Educators say this sort of cross-dressing skit is common in high schools.

But at last year’s rally, many of the Woodbridge High boys stuck balloons in bikini tops or under their football jerseys, and included pelvic thrusts and other sexual gestures in their performances. The seniors’ skit included a medley of the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” which ended with the boys jumping off chairs and grabbing their crotches while in midair.

This summer, several social science teachers, who were revamping the curriculum to include lessons on multicultural respect, decided the pep rally was problematic and drafted a letter of protest to the 23-member student council. It was signed by 45 of the school’s 111 staff members and called for an end to the tradition.

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Two weeks later, after discussions in political science classes, debate at council meetings and chatter in the campus courtyards, the student government said the spoof simply wasn’t worth it.

“I wasn’t offended, (but) if it’s going to cause a stink then we don’t want to do it,” said Junior Class President Aimee Surovy. “The problem is that the students were so into the male cheerleaders, and that’s what we’re trying to do is get students involved. . . . We’ll just have to think of something else.”

Dana Duenzen, who chairs the social science department and advises the cheerleading squad, said teachers found the skits degrading to cheerleaders as well as women in general.

In their letter to the student council, the teachers called the performance--which includes jumps, splits, pyramids and flips--”unsafe,” “totally inappropriate,” “in poor taste” and “obscene,” and compared the tradition to old-time minstrel shows in which white actors wore black face and mimicked African-Americans.

“The whole practice of having boys dress up in drag, exaggerating the appearance and behavior of females is demeaning toward girls and women,” the letter says. “Some of you may argue that it is all in fun and the girls seem to laugh and enjoy it as much as the boys. . . . Even if people seem to find the act funny, amusing or entertaining, it still does not change the fact that the entertainment comes at the expense of one group among us.”

Despite the decision to replace the cheerleading spoofs with another kind of spirit competition, many leaders of the 1,700-member student body--including most of the cheerleading squad--insist the homecoming tradition is harmless.

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“We think it’s kind of funny how the football players look really silly out there with all the makeup and just act really stupid,” said Rhonda Kaufman, a sophomore on the squad. “I know that when we get older we’ll probably realize that it’s kind of discriminating against women, but right now in this part of our life we’re just trying to have fun, that’s all, so we don’t mind.”

Jason Haffar, a senior football player who participated in the homecoming spoof for three years, agreed.

“It wasn’t like a sexist thing or anything like that, it was just a tradition at Woodbridge. It was all just fun and games, no one I knew of had any negative feelings,” he said. “We had the cheerleaders help us. They did our makeup, we’re wearing their skirts. They coached us, they recruited us.”

“It was fun,” added Surovy, who represents her class on the student council. “I understand the intent: They weren’t trying to be mean, they were just having fun dancing around.”

But Duenzen, a former cheerleader herself, said she just could not stand by and watch extracurricular assemblies that contradict lessons on fairness and equality in the classroom.

“What we’re trying to do is to get kids to respect each other and to not make fun of each other, to treat each other ethically,” she said. “They’re making fun of girls’ bodies. . . . They are behaving in a sexually explicit way. . . . We’re talking about pregnancy as a problem and AIDS as a problem and then we show them all these sexually explicit things. At this point, we’ve said as a society it’s not appropriate. Let’s start teaching our kids you need to stop doing these things.”

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Under a new state law that went into effect Jan. 1, students in fourth through 12th grades can be suspended or expelled for engaging in sexual harassment, which is defined in the Education Code as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature” that has a negative impact on academic performance or creates a hostile educational environment.

The Irvine Unified School District also passed a three-page anti-harassment policy last week that is posted in Woodbridge’s student and teacher lounges as a reminder.

In drafting the new state law, state Sen. Gary Hart (D-Santa Barbara) focused mainly on incidents of teasing, boys flipping up girls’ skirts, and inappropriate touching. But a member of his staff said Thursday that the Woodbridge spoof was an example of in-school sexual harassment.

“It seems like anything that creates a caricature of someone or something that they do with pride and is sexist in nature is not a particularly educational thing to do,” said Mimi Modisette, legislative consultant to the state Senate Education Committee that Hart chairs, and a former cheerleader herself.

Cops, the principal, and Irvine Supt. David Brown both said they are proud of the students for analyzing the issue and making the decision themselves.

The council heard presentations from the teachers who criticized the spoof as well as football players and others who support the spoof, and reviewed a videotape of last year’s rally before making its decision.

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“I would agree with students that it’s no big deal, but what is no big deal to some and offensive to others should not be tolerated,” Brown said, adding that he has seen football players dress as cheerleaders and vice versa often in his career at half a dozen high schools around Southern California. Students “can come to some pretty logical and reasonable decisions if given time.”

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