Cheerleading Dispute Is No Game in Antelope Valley

Times Staff Writer

When her daughter was rejected by this year's Quartz Hill High School cheerleading squad, Liz Smith decided to make a goal-line stand -- in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Smith is hoping a judge will force the local school board to fully investigate last spring's tryouts, when her daughter, Kelly, performed an ill-fated routine to the strains of "I Want Candy." The goal, attorney Brian Reed said, is to have cheer coach Tammy Stewart fired.

Stewart, in turn, signed up the Antelope Valley's most flamboyant lawyer, R. Rex Parris, who asserts the case is based on "a conspiracy theory that would impress the most avid Kennedy historian."

Now all are embroiled in a legal battle that is the talk of north Los Angeles County.

In court records, Smith claims Stewart rigged the tryouts to ensure that Kelly did not make the team -- an assertion backed up by one of the five tryout judges. Liz Smith alleges the snub was an act of small-town politics and a retaliation against Kelly for winning the 2001 Miss Quartz Hill beauty pageant.

Parris, who has taken on the case for free, has obtained statements from witnesses who say Kelly simply flubbed her routine. He called the case one of the "reasons people make lawyer jokes."

In the amateur sports world, cases like Smith's are increasingly common. Herb Appenzeller, an attorney who specializes in sports law, said schools and amateur sports groups have been slapped with more than 1,300 lawsuits in the last five years, an increase of more than 30% over the previous five years.

Some of those suits deal with personal injuries and other matters, but Appenzeller said there has also been an increase in legal actions like Smith's, which some experts call "hurt-feeling" cases. Some may find them frivolous. But for the athletes who feel wronged, Appenzeller said, "it's a big thing."

There is little doubt that in the Antelope Valley, "cheer" is a big thing, indeed. Mixing serious gymnastics with old-fashioned sis-boom-bah, cheer -- now a competitive sport -- rivals teen beauty pageants as a popular extracurricular activity for girls here.

In Lancaster, a city of 123,000 next to the unincorporated community of Quartz Hill, two large gyms have opened in the last year that specifically train girls in cheerleading. Girls, who may start training as young as 2, compete for their junior high, high school and private club teams.

Pep-driven parents known as "cheer moms" spend thousands of dollars on uniforms, summer camps and after-school lessons. The teams compete in national contests, and the most talented participants are eligible for college scholarships.

"Cheer is a very big deal in this valley -- there's a lot of talent here," said Robin DeFeyter, who watched her daughter's lesson recently through the window of the Lancaster training gym Supreme Cheer. "And this has caused a rift."

Indeed, for many residents of these family-friendly suburbs, the divisions caused by the yearlong dispute have been depressingly serious.

The case has sown distrust among parents, divided Quartz Hill's senior class and given fresh ammunition to critics of the Antelope Valley Union High School District, who say the district mishandled the investigation.

Although not as serious as the 1991 case of the "Texas Cheerleader Mom" -- in which a pep squad dust-up was nearly settled by a hit man -- the case has provoked similar soul-searching here. It has been the subject of gossip for months. Some residents fear it has soured one of the High Desert's most attractive assets: its emphasis on kids.

"These adults don't care that they're hurting children. It's all about their self-wants," said Mary Spiva, a Palmdale activist who has sided with the Smiths, although her comments are echoed by those who side with Stewart. "It's really something to behold up here."

The allegations in court documents range from the mundane to the serious. In her sworn declaration, former Quartz Hill cheer coach Norma Cook said Stewart's husband physically assaulted Cook at a football game because she spoke out on the issue. Stewart adamantly denies the claim.

Smith's accusations are based in part on a declaration by Supreme Cheer's choreographer, Eric Guerrero, who was a judge for the 2002 Quartz Hill tryouts.

According to Guerrero, Stewart told him before the tryouts she didn't want her team to include Kelly, a returning cheerleader from the previous season. After Kelly's routine, Guerrero contends, Stewart changed the score he had given.

Stewart has presented declarations from other judges and observers stating that Kelly and her partner were out of sync with the music. Quartz Hill Vice Principal Karen Parker, who supervised the tryouts, said in a declaration that "there was never any opportunity" for Stewart to change the scores.

After the tryouts, Liz Smith took her complaint to the school board. When it decided not to discipline or fire Stewart, Smith instigated the legal action in September, naming the school board as a respondent and Stewart as an interested party. School officials have said they gave the issue a proper review.

Parris and the school district's attorneys are trying to have the case dismissed. Last month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Doyle ruled that Smith's case was insufficient but gave her attorney, Brian Reed, another chance to amend his petition by Monday.

Reed says he plans to fight. Stewart, he said, is motivated by a "personal grudge" against Kelly Smith, because, among other things, the 18-year-old bested one of Stewart's friends in the Miss Quartz Hill pageant.

The Smiths, contacted through their attorney, declined to comment. Stewart -- a fit 32-year-old who also works part-time painting nails -- said the case has made her an "emotional wreck." But cheerleaders such as Lindsay Thompson are sticking with her.

"From what I know of Tammy, I don't believe it to be true," the 17-year-old said.

Cheer moms in both camps are bitter and suspicious.

DeFeyter said she believes the statements of Guerrero, who coaches her 12-year-old daughter, Tiffany, at Supreme Cheer. Tiffany will probably attend Quartz Hill High when she is old enough, and DeFeyter is worried her daughter won't get a fair shake when her big tryout rolls around.

DeFeyter asked a visitor to take a second to marvel at the grace and strength her daughter displayed on the gym mat.

Then DeFeyter said she agreed with Liz Smith's decision to take her case up with the courts.

"If she feels that strongly about it," she said, "then yes."

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