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How the 'Cheer' family handled the Jerry Harris news in season two

“It was devastating, it was gut wrenching and it was very, very sad,” said Morgan Simianer, a Navarro cheerleader featured in Netflix's hit docuseries.
Image: A scene from "Cheer."
A scene from "Cheer."Netflix

Warning: This article contains some spoilers.

What happens to a community when a loved one is accused of sexual misconduct?

It's a question that the cheerleading team from Navarro College, in Corsicana, Texas, doesn't shy away from in the second season of "Cheer," Netflix’s Emmy-winning documentary series.

The show, which debuts its new season on Wednesday, focuses on the cheerleading teams at Navarro and its arch-rival, Trinity Valley Community College, as they prepare for the 2020 and 2021 National Cheerleading Association’s championship — better known as the Olympics of junior college cheerleading.

Like many other productions, the series was placed on hold, and the 2020 national championship was canceled, due to Covid-19 that March. By the time the show resumed filming in September, another event upended the team's lives: Breakout star Jerry Harris was arrested on a federal child pornography charge.

Jerry Harris discusses "Cheer" at Build Studio in New York City on Jan. 29, 2020.Jim Spellman / Getty Images file

In December 2020, federal agents filed seven additional charges against Harris, including receiving and attempting to receive child pornography, using the internet to “persuade, induce, and entice” a minor, and traveling from Texas to Florida “for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct” with a minor, according to an indictment.

A trial date has not been set, but Harris has pleaded not guilty and has denied all the charges through a spokesperson.

“We categorically dispute the claims made against Jerry Harris, which are alleged to have occurred when he was a teenager,” his spokesperson said in a statement in September 2020.

After his arrest, Harris admitted in a voluntary interview with law enforcement officials that he had solicited sexually explicit photos on Snapchat with up to 15 individuals he knew were minors and had sex with a 15-year-old at a cheer event in 2019, according to the 2020 indictment. It was unclear how old Harris was when these alleged exchanges occurred.

Harris, whose attorney did not immediately respond to an NBC News request for comment, is expected to appear in a status hearing on Wednesday, according to court documents.

To say that the Navarro cheerleading team has had to grapple with more than its fair share of challenges would be an understatement. And it's a sentiment that rings particularly true for "Cheer" stars and Navarro cheerleaders Gabriella "Gabi" Butler and Morgan Simianer.

Gabi Butler.Jim Spellman / Getty Images file

The cancellation of the 2020 national championship was "devastating," said Butler, who competed that year and in 2021.

"We worked so hard, basically to be at the finish line and then it just kind of got taken away," she said.

For Simianer, it was particularly difficult because the 2019-20 cheer season was her last.

"I was emotionally not OK. I cried so much and it was really hard for me to process it," she said. "It's my heart and my soul, and I love Navarro."

But for all the trials and tribulations Butler and Simianer endured over the past two years, Harris' arrest was one of the most devastating, they said.

When everyone heard the news ... it was devastating, it was gut-wrenching and it was very, very sad.

-Morgan Simianer, 'Cheer' star

Harris cheered with the two since the 2017-18 cheer season, Simianer said.

"We were all very tight-knit and the Jerry that you guys saw on the first season — that was the Jerry that we knew," she said. “He was the bubbly fun personality that was just always positive and pulling other people out of their low points."

“But when everyone heard the news, especially our whole team at Navarro, it was devastating, it was gut-wrenching and it was very, very sad."

Both Simianer and Butler said their hearts go out to everyone involved in the situation.

Discovering that a close friend or a family member has been accused of sexual misconduct is almost like experiencing the stages of grief over losing a loved one, experts said.

It's "normal" for people to feel conflicted when the image they knew of their loved one is incongruous with what they have been accused of in the past, said Kristen Houser, a nationally recognized expert in sexual abuse with 30 years of experience.

"Disbelief or rejection is often the most common initial reaction, and then after processing it a bit more, people quickly turn into an amateur investigator and try to find out what happened."

Finding out about Harris' arrest with cameras recording didn't necessarily help with processing the news either, Butler said.

"It was kind of a moment that I wanted to just have alone, because it was a very, very, very devastating thing," she said.

Laura Palumbo, communications director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, added the challenge is that when a loved one is accused of something unimaginable, it often goes against the reductive categories of "good" and "bad" people.

A loved one who is accused of sexual misconduct does not capture the "complexity" and "totality" of who they are as a person, Palumbo said. "They have other characteristics in place, but that does not mean they’re incapable of being a caring individual or someone with a positive impact."

The flip side, she added, is that the same characteristics associated with a person we love can also be the attributes of someone who was alleged to have committed sexual abuse.

Shortly after its debut in January 2020, “Cheer” became a blowout success, catapulting the show’s main cast members into the national spotlight. One of the most popular stars was Harris, who became widely recognized for his flamboyant and jovial personality.

In fact, his popularity was so immense that his online fanbase became known as the “Jerry hive”; he frequently appeared on both morning and late night talk shows; and he even served as a correspondent on the red carpet at the 2020 Oscars for “The Ellen Degeneres Show.”

But, as the phrase often goes, the bigger Harris was, the harder he fell.

Navarro Cheer said in a tweet in September 2020 that it was “devastated by this shocking, unexpected news.”

“Our hearts are shattered into a million pieces,” the statement read. “Our children must be protected from abuse & exploitation, & we are praying hard for the victims and everyone affected.”

In episode 5 of its new season, "Cheer" devotes about an hour discussing the F.B.I. investigation, including interviews with cast members like coach Monica Aldama, and the twin teenage boys who accused Harris of sexual abuse in September 2020.

Aldama, who serves as a mentor and maternal figure for several team members, explained she heard the news when she was in dress rehearsal for Season 29 of "Dancing With the Stars."

"It was like an out-of-body experience at the time. I felt like I couldn't breathe," she says in the episode. "It was just an awful situation, it was a really tough week because I wasn't [with the team]."

Aldama, who was not available for an interview for this article, also said in the episode that Harris recently wrote her a letter, describing his hopes of becoming a motivational speaker one day.

In the episode, Netflix said Harris’ legal team declined to comment for the series.

Toward the end of the episode, there is a recorded interview with Harris, in which he says: "If I didn't cheer I would have probably fell to the dark side. I would probably be somewhere on the street right now. I would probably be in and out of jail. I would probably be upset at the world, and I would be hurting others because I would be hurting myself. I would not be where I am today without cheer."

Moving forward, Aldama said, “I keep putting one foot in front of another. Every single day. Don’t have a choice.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual violence, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline by calling 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit the lifeline crisis chat at hotline.rainn.org/online.