Johnathan Madison says cheerleaders didn't want a boy on the squad, so they framed him. They say he spiked soda. The School Board hears final arguments Tuesday.
SAN ANTONIO - Johnathan Madison used to be on the sidelines. Now he's front and center - amid attorneys, investigators and cheerleaders - in a battle with the Pasco County School Board.
Trouble began July 23. Johnathan, 17, was the lone male cheerleader on the Pasco High School squad at a cheering camp at the University of South Florida.
Someone brought alcohol. Rumors flew. Johnathan was accused of spiking soda with vodka. A search of his room turned up nothing, but after written statements from other cheerleaders - and a counterclaim that he was the victim of a conspiracy because of his gender - Johnathan was removed from cheering and issued a 10-day school suspension.
He vehemently denies the allegations, and the suspension is on hold. With the moral and financial support of parents fervently in his corner, Johnathan's case is set to go before the School Board for a final hearing Tuesday.
It's an appeals level that school district equity and employment law director Frank Kalinowski said is rarely reached. Kalinowski could think of only four students in the past three years who have pursued an appeal this far, and three of those students were involved in the same case two years ago that involved participation in graduation ceremonies.
As the battle progressed, Johnathan's parents said they have poured thousands of dollars into the fight, hiring court reporters, an attorney, private detectives and polygraph experts to back their son.
The teen's parents said they stand by him; they are prepared to spend whatever it takes to clear his name, and if he loses his appeal this week, they say they will take the fight to a courtroom.
"At this point, we're trying to do everything we can to protect our child," Johnathan's mother, Diana, said last week. "Everyone's told us, "You'll never win.' But we are not going to go away. My son has told me he is innocent."
Diana Madison has turned her home office into a war room. Documents line one wall in neat piles. Her correspondence to school officials indicates it has been copied to federal civil rights investigators and local television news programs, as well as the ABC television network show Primetime and anchor Diane Sawyer.
When it's over, Diana Madison said she might shop the story as a television movie.
School superintendent John Long said a school attorney has advised him and other school employees to say nothing and to let the proceedings speak for themselves. But he said he supported the school's investigative panels that have dealt with the situation in two prior hearings.
"(Hearing officer Robert Dorn) and the school people researched this thoroughly," Long said last week. "I feel very comfortable with their decision and recommendation to the School Board."
Johnathan's testimony at a Sept. 25 appeal was transcribed by a court reporter the Madisons hired.
He said he went to camp with his mother that day and was with her as he was assigned a room, then went upstairs with her and the cooler of snacks they packed together the night before.
In a thick folder of documents, his mother keeps the receipt from Wal-Mart, listing the soda and snacks they bought.
"Every step of the way, my mom was with me," Johnathan told school officials. "She unpacked my room, my clothes in my bag ... rearranged the stuff in my cooler."
After the students' parents left and a day of orientation meetings and dinner, campers decorated the dorm hallways. Johnathan said he took a shower at about 11 p.m. and was about to go to sleep when cheering coach Carrie Cohen and an assistant came to him and asked about alcohol.
Cohen later testified that three girls came to her and told her some of the girls were drinking alcohol. Johnathan said he wasn't involved.
"I told them I didn't know anything about girls drinking or people having alcohol with them," he testified.
The subsequent room search, the questions and Johnathan's removal from the cheering squad sparked a flurry of correspondence between school officials and the Madison family. The Madisons hired lawyer Brad Tobin, who presented witnesses and questioned officials at the September hearing.
"Our theory is that this is a conspiracy," Tobin told Dorn. "He was set up by cheerleaders who did not believe he belonged on the squad. They had attitudes against male cheerleaders."
Tobin produced witness Heather Gaskin, a Wesley Chapel High School student who said she overheard some Pasco High cheerleaders talking at her church a week before the USF camp.
"I heard (a cheerleader) state to these two other girls that she was going to find a way to get Johnathan kicked off the cheerleading squad because he was a boy," she said.
Pasco High has had male cheerleaders in the past.
Principal Patrick Reedy said at the hearing that he talked with several cheerleaders and read their written statements.
"Not a single cheerleader out of all the statements indicated anybody else but Johnathan being the one to provide the alcohol," he said.
School officials, citing state and federal rules, have refused to give the Madisons the names of the teenage girls on the cheering squad who may have also been involved or disciplined. But the district did provide copies of statements the girls wrote, with names blacked out.
"When Johnathan gave me a Sierra Mist bottle I had no clue what was in there," one girl wrote. "After I drunk some, he showed me the bottle of alcohol and told me what it was. The alcohol was not in a reg. bottle that it was suppose to be in. It was in a water bottle."
While school district rules can allow a student accused of wrongdoing to appeal his punishment and to question witnesses who have testified against him, the rules also allow officials to withhold the witnesses' identities if the principal thinks it would place them in jeopardy of retaliation.
Most of the girls questioned wrote in their statements that they knew nothing beyond the rumors, but they said the rumors pointed to Johnathan.
At home last week, Johnathan insisted he is innocent, and protecting his school record is important enough to fight for.
He said he dreams of one day possibly working in law enforcement, combining his passion for scuba diving as a specialist with the FBI or another federal or state agency. That would require a background check, he said, and a high school incident could leave a mark.
"I didn't do it," he said.
The Madisons submitted results of an Aug. 19 polygraph test from Private Polygraph Inc. of Tampa. According to company forensic psychophysiologist Mike Alaiwat, Johnathan is telling the truth.
Johnathan's hearing this week will be the final step allowed by the school system.
His father, John, listed in a letter to the superintendent what it would take to settle the matter.
Demands include, among other things, a clean school record for Johnathan; a cheerleading varsity letter; reimbursement to Johnathan's college fund for money spent defending the case; apologies from coaches, Reedy and cheerleaders; polygraphs for other witnesses; and disciplinary action for Reedy and Cohen for the way the incident was handled.
Dorn replied to John Madison's letter.
"You have described a number of actions which you deem to be the best solution to this matter," Dorn wrote. "None is a possible outcome."
- Chase Squires can be reached at 352 521-5757, ext. 27 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6108, then 27. His e-mail address is email@example.com