Court Tosses Texas Cheerleader’s ‘Petty’ Suit

By Mark Walsh — July 15, 2011 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit by a Texas high school student who challenged her failure to make the senior cheerleading squad amid a personal squabble with another student.

“Reduced to its essentials, this is nothing more than a dispute, fueled by a disgruntled cheerleader mom, over whether her daughter should have made the squad,” said the opinion by a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans. “It is a petty squabble, masquerading as a civil rights matter, that has no place in federal court or any other court.”

The suit by the student, Samantha Sanches, alleges that she was hazed and sexually harassed in the spring of 2008 by a member of the cheerleading squad at Creekview High School, in the Carollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District, near Dallas. The suit says Sanches, who was on the cheerleading squad in her junior year, was disadvantaged in tryouts for the senior squad by the harassment and the responses of school officials. Sanches did not make the cheerleading team for her senior year, receiving low scores from a panel of judges.

Sanches’ mother, Liz Laningham, complained repeatedly to school officials about her daughter’s treatment. And Sanches’ suit is replete with references to “the ‘ho’ incident,” “the butt-slap incident,” “the pregancy rumor,” and other alleged harassment by the senior cheerleader who was the nemesis of Sanches, apparently at least in part because she lost a boyfriend to Sanches.

Sanches alleged that school officials violated the girl’s rights under the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by acting with deliberate indifference to the allegations.

Both a federal magistrate judge and a district judge rejected the suit, and in its July 13 decision in Sanches v. Carollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District, the 5th Circuit court affirmed the dismissal.

The court said that the alleged harassment of Sanches by the senior cheerleader was teasing and bullying motivated by personal animus, and was not “based on sex” as required to come under Title IX, which bars discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs.

The senior cheerleader who allegedly harassed Sanches “was acting like a typical high-school girl whose ex-boyfriend began dating a younger cheerleader,” the 5th Circuit court said. “That is the sort of unpleasant conflict that takes place every day in high schools, and it is not the proper stuff of a federal harassment claim.”

The court also said that school officials took the harassment claims seriously by investigating and taking certain actions. The school district’s responses were not unreasonable merely because the mother was unhappy that officials did not remove the alleged harasser from cheerleading or place Sanches on the squad, the court said.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.