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Wisconsin school ending cheerleading awards for 'big boobie' and 'big booty' after ACLU letter

Starting last year, the “string bean award” for the skinniest cheerleader was added to the list, the ACLU said.
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A Wisconsin high school won't be giving out awards like “big booty” to cheerleaders this year after the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the district detailing complaints from multiple parents and staffers.

Tremper High School, part of the Kenosha Unified School District, has been holding an annual award ceremony for cheerleaders for at least five years. In 2017, along with standard honors, such as for "hardest worker," awards for “big boobie” and “big booty” were given, according to the ACLU's letter.

The following year, the “string bean award” for the skinniest cheerleader was added to the lineup, the letter said.

And in prior years, the coaches, at least some of whom are female, made comments about the girls' vaginas during the ceremony, which is held for between 100 and 150 people, including family and friends of the cheerleaders and Kenosha Unified School District staff, the ACLU said

During the 2018 awards, a parent told the ACLU that "coaches 'laughed hysterically' when handing the big boobie award to its recipient and made comments on the microphone about 'what a feat' it was that this student could maneuver through cheer routines with her 'enormous boobs,'" the letter said.

According to the ACLU's letter, the winner of the “big booty” award was greeted with this commentary: “We love her butt. Everybody loves her butt."

After the 2018 ceremony, a female coach for another sport at the school emailed both the principal, Steven Knecht, and one of the cheerleading coaches, according to the ACLU's letter.

"'The last thing these high school girls need is a fellow woman in their lives communicating to them that they are objects or that their appearance is something to be gawked at, demeaned, laughed at, or even awarded for that matter,'" she wrote to the cheerleading coach, the ACLU letter said.

The cheerleading coach responded, "I honestly don’t feel that I need to explain myself about how we ran our banquet. Actually we have ran it this way for years and have never had a problem," according to the ACLU's letter, which did not identify the coach.

The principal afterward told the cheerleading coaches that after complaints from four people, he would be investigating the awards. But he later told a concerned parent that he "could find no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the coaches," according to the ACLU.

When the parent "insisted Mr. Knecht had missed something," he responded that the awards “were meant to be funny” and the coaches were just joking around," recounted the ACLU's letter.

When a parent went to the district with concerns, the district's chief of school eadership reiterated Knecht's response, according to the ACLU.

But later in 2018, a human resources official for the district met with the head cheerleading coach and told her to apologize to each student who received a “gag award" and resign, the ACLU said. The coach apologized, but refused to resign. Knecht had made it clear that she was welcome to continue coaching, according to the ACLU.

Neither Knecht nor the district's chief of student leadership, Susan Valeri, responded to requests for comments from NBC News.

Tanya Ruder, the Kenosha Unified School District chief communications officer, said in a statement that "a clear expectation has been set that awards of this nature are not acceptable and are not to be given at Tremper cheerleading banquets going forward."

Emma Roth, who works for the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, said the school notified the ACLU that the awards in question will not be given out this year. The other change to the ceremony this year is that parents won't be invited, Roth said.

The ACLU's letter, which threatened to "explore all available legal remedies" against the district, said the Tremper cheerleading awards aren't the only issues of gender discrimination against girls on the cheering squad and other female students at the high school and in the district at large.

"In addition to these awards, parents have reported that the Tremper Cheer coaches have regularly engaged in harassing language towards the cheerleaders during practices," the ACLU letter said.

Further, a dress code at the high school that "administrators have selectively enforced" against female students banned yoga pants, leggings and tank tops, according to the ACLU.

At another Kenosha school, Bradford High School, students in a health class were made to watch a movie in which a female college freshman is drugged and raped. "The students were then told to fill out a worksheet that asked, 'What could have Melissa done differently to have avoided her sexual assault (provide at least 4 examples)?'" the ACLU's letter said.

"This question squarely places the blame for a sexual assault on the victim, rather than the perpetrator who drugged and raped her," the letter said.

The ACLU urged the district to discipline staff involved with the cheerleading awards and provide mandatory anti-harassment training for all district employees and written guidelines "prohibiting school officials from commenting on students’ physical appearances."

The civil liberties group is also asking for the district to release a review they conducted regarding the offending health class curriculum.

Roth, with the ACLU, said they had "received a cursory response" from the district.

"The ACLU and ACLU of Wisconsin will continue to press KUSD to respond appropriately to these incidents and to reform and enforce its policies so that all students are treated equally, regardless of gender," Asma Kadri-Keeler, an ACLU of Wisconsin staff attorney, said in a statement released to NBC News Wednesday.

Tremper High School previously made headlines when a U.S. District Court judge ruled in 2017 that a transgender boy could use the boys' restroom after teachers and administrators at the school told him he could not.

The district appealed the decision, and after the ruling was upheld by appeals court judges, school officials petitioned to appeal that ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2018, the school board changed course, and voted 5 to 2 to settle a lawsuit over the matter and withdraw its petition to the high court.