The allegations read like a Hollywood script: a cutthroat high school cheerleading coach who bullies team members and berates injured cheerleaders to walk it off . A booster club that demands parents fork over thousands of dollars. Cheerleaders who forge their parents’ signatures to go on secret field trips. Parents who call the cops on moms they don’t agree with.
All that is just part of the drama described by some cheerleaders and parents at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Parents who protested how the program was run say they were ostracized — and their daughters cut from the varsity team — while school and district administrators knowingly turned a blind eye.
“I brought it to the attention of the principal in January,” said parent Joann Gavin. “As each day went by, it escalated ... the administration was doing nothing.”
When frustrated parents complained in recent weeks to Superintendent Robert Runcie and Broward School Board members, the reaction was collective shock. Runcie late last week removed Douglas Cheerleading Coach Melissa Prochilo, though she is still employed as a full-time substitute teacher at Douglas.
Neither Prochilo nor Douglas Principal Washington Collado responded to a request for comment relayed through the district. Collado earlier this year promoted Prochilo from a part-time to full-time substitute teacher — after multiple complaints about the coach. Gavin, meanwhile, was banned from the school campus for several months — retaliation, she says, for questioning the coach’s leadership.
Weeks after the principal banned her, two close allies of the coach called police on Gavin — one alleging Gavin followed her out of the school parking lot, the second accusing Gavin, the booster club’s assistant treasurer, of trying to remove others from the booster bank account.
Gavin calls the charges “beyond ridiculous,” and notes that police wrote up both cases as non-criminal information reports — essentially conceding no criminal act occurred.
Supporters of the coach — and there are many — aren’t going along with the firing. Throngs of pro-Prochilo students and parents are expected to trek to Tuesday’s School Board meeting in hopes of reversing her removal. Fliers circulating the community blast the school district for firing a “fair, knowledgeable and kindhearted” coach.
“It’s sad what’s being presented about this coach,” said Douglas parent Cindy Beach, former vice president of the cheerleading booster club. “I’ve never seen her yell at a kid.”
Beach suggested that parents who complain about Prochilo are just unhappy that their child didn’t make the varsity team.
But there is evidence to suggest that the cheer program routinely flouted rules, including:
• E-mails and online postings where the coach and/or booster club pressured parents to make mandatory payments to support the cheer program — in violation of district rules that prohibit any fee to participate in extracurricular activities. Parents said they paid about $1,500 a year.
• A booster club bank account of roughly $69,000 that operated without any school oversight (in violation of district rules), and spent freely on items often tied to friends or associates of the coach. A choreographer was paid $3000; a friend of Prochilo’s was paid $1,000 to provide hair bows.
• Eight cheerleaders signed sworn statements that Prochilo pressured them to forge their parents’ signatures in order to participate in an unathorized field trip to a gym located 17 miles from the school. Based in part on Prochilo’s denials, an internal school district investigation found no probable cause that the coach had orchestrated the forgeries, though investigators did conclude the forgeries took place while the students were under the coach’s supervision.
School Board member Katie Leach said the pay-to-play allegation is particularly troubling, as cheerleading and other sports can lead to college scholarships, and charging high school participants is essentially closing off that opportunity to some students. Leach said she knew of at least one girl who dropped out of Douglas cheerleading because of the price tag.
“That’s not what public education is about,” Leach said.