Concerns raised about safety in high school cheerleading

Sunday , May 18, 2014 - 2:33 PM

Standard-Examiner correspondent

OGDEN – Every year, the National Cheerleading Federation puts out new rules on what can and can’t be done in the world of high school and junior high school cheerleading, but whether those rules are followed is a great mystery and also brings up questions of just who is keeping cheerleaders safe.

Cheerleading is not recognized by the Utah High School Athletic Association as a sport. Its jurisdiction falls under Utah Risk Management and the State School Boards.

The group just held a statewide safety clinic at Fremont High School earlier this week and all teams were given a spirit handbook with new rule changes from the federation – some involve specific changes in how pyramids can be made.

Rob Cuff, Executive Director of UHSAA, said his organization doesn’t recognize cheerleading because there are only so many sports that can be recognized and only one “spirit group” is allowed and UHSAA sanctions drill teams rather than cheerleading. Cuff said not very many states recognize both. To him, cheerleading being recognized by the state’s risk management and state school boards is better because of insurance and liability.

But for some involved in the cheer world, it can get confusing because school districts often make additional rules regarding stunting or only allow schools to participate in so many competitions per year.

Jill Scholfield is the cheer advisor at Fremont High School and feels the frustration. Scholfield has been involved with cheerleading and coaching for over 20 years and has seen how cheerleading has changed and how the rules change frequently and admits it’s hard to keep up. “Although we are supposed to be following the rules, some do not,” Scholfield said. Because school districts add additional rules it’s hard to be on a level playing field when it comes to cheer competitions and people also don’t often realize that there are cheer competitions because some don’t view cheerleading as a valid sport.

Schofield admits that the state is trying to make things more standardized and has held a statewide competition for the last two years, but there are also national competitions where teams compete and those safety rules change, although they do follow national rules, the rules mandated by the districts or the state become blurry, she said. “Teams will say they are national champions, but they really aren’t. It really depends on what competition they were in,” Scholfield said.

Part of the problem with being a sanctioned sport is that many think cheerleading doesn’t really have a season, but it does, Schofield said. They just have cheering obligations when their season isn’t in full swing. “Our season in November through March, but we interlace with different sporting events all year,” Schofield said.

In the training, Lori Rupp, head clinician for all Utah State Office of Risk Management Cheer Safety Clinics, told the cheer teams of the importance of following rules and making things safe for cheerleaders is vital. She told the cheer advisors that it was a must to read the spirit handbook from cover to cover. “There are several things up for interpretation,” Rupp said. But one rule is very clear that the state made last year – no stunting or tumbling on indoor court at an away game. Rupp said she continually gets phone calls from cheer teams complaining that other cheer teams have broken stunting rules. “This can change the direction cheer is going in Utah…we don’t expect to have to babysit other cheer teams,” she said.

She reprimanded cheer teams that performed illegal stunts during a live-streamed play-off high school basketball game earlier this year. “Thank God there was no catastrophic injury,” Rupp said. “If you continue this I guarantee we will be grounded as sport,” Rupp added. She told the cheer teams that when they go to events they must follow the rules.

Schofield said oftentimes, young girls who have been cheerleaders come into to be advisors without proper training, without certification and then try stunts that they have seen on You Tube or some other online resource. “They think it will be fun and exciting to try it and have no idea what they are doing,” Schofield said. That is frustrating for her and other coaches that know the rules and know the dangers involved.

Majerle Zundel is a new junior high coach at Highland Junior High School in Ogden. She also coaches volleyball and said she has certification in first aid as well as concussion training. She was a cheerleader in high school and has been working under Ben Lomond’s cheer advisor to learn the ropes. In junior high girls are not allowed to do stunting, but the advisors are working with the school district in hopes to allow more stunting in the Ogden district for high school cheerleaders, she said. The schools will also be coming up with an emergency plan if there is an injury on how to help the cheerleaders best, she said.

Schofield makes sure her teams follows the rules of the national federation, because if not her team is not backed by state risk management, which is a real worry for other teams who don’t. “If my team performs illegal stunts I’m the one. If you don’t follow the rules, they don’t back you,” Schofield said. She cautions other coaches and cheerleaders to understand the rules so they don’t go down a road that could cause injury and then not be insured from that injury because it was an illegal stunt. “They follow the letter of law,” Schofield said. “Not very many even care or read that book and it needs to be more important.”

Both Rupp and Schofield said that cheerleaders are doing the same kind of hard combat-type exercises as football players, just without the pads.

Ken Crawford, Ogden School District athletic director said he trusts that the cheer advisors know what the rules are because the sport is not mandated by UHSAA. “They need to know what their responsibilities are.”

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