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Fight, fight, fight

When Johnathan Madison was kicked off the cheerleading squad, his mother began a crusade to clear his name. The $60,000 the family has spent is only part of the cost.

LANE DeGREGORY
Published May 30, 2004

DADE CITY - Johnathan's mom drove him to cheerleading camp that Wednesday.

She helped carry his bags to his dorm room at the University of South Florida, where he was going to spend three days with his teammates from Pasco High. She hung his Tommy Hilfiger shirts in the closet. She made his bed.

Then she drained the melted ice from his cooler. She had packed it with nectarines and peaches, whole milk and Zephyrhills water, two bottles of Gatorade and a six-pack of Sierra Mist. She knows these details because she went back to Wal-Mart months later and got a copy of the receipt.

She needed it for evidence.

* * *

At 1 p.m. on July 23, Johnathan's mom hugged her only child goodbye.

Johnathan Madison, then 17, was the only boy on his high school cheerleading squad. He and his teammates - 31 teenage girls - spent their first night at camp sprawled out in the dormitory hall, singing to a boombox and decorating posters. Go Pirates.

At midnight, the cheerleaders went to their rooms to shower and get ready for bed. Johnathan was toweling off when Carrie Cohen, the cheerleading coach, knocked on his door.

One of the girls had sipped someone's Sierra Mist and tasted alcohol. Other girls had told the coach they thought Johnathan had supplied it.

Cohen went to Johnathan's room and asked him if it was true. He said no. She looked around his room but didn't find any alcohol. Johnathan was allowed to stay at camp.

That wasn't the end of it. When Johnathan's senior year started in August, Pasco High principal Patrick Reedy demanded written statements from the cheerleaders. They supplied 32 pages of testimony, with unique spellings and syntax.

"Alright, when Johnathan gave me a seira 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." Reedy kicked Johnathan off the cheerleading squad and gave him a three-day, in-school suspension. That meant Johnathan would have to do his work in a room near the principal's office instead of with his classmates.

Reedy also ordered Johnathan to attend an alcohol education program, six one-hour sessions for teenagers. It could have ended there.

But Johnathan's mom believed he hadn't done anything wrong. So she launched a crusade to clear his name.

No matter what the cost.

* * *

The Madisons live in a sprawling two-story home across from an orange grove on the outskirts of Dade City with an old golden retriever named Hamilton and an overprotective Yorkie called Tiffany. Johnathan's dad, John, runs an electrical contracting company in Tampa.

His mom, Diana, is a makeup artist, prepping actors for commercials and Home Shopping Network shoots. Sometimes she flies to California to do television movies.

She doesn't wear much makeup. She highlights her long, straight hair. At 44, she can still fit into the sequined majorette costume she wore at Tampa Catholic in the late '70s. The dress sparkles in its glass case over the stairway in the family home. The trophies and tiaras she won as Miss Brandon and Miss Tampa are framed just outside Johnathan's bedroom.

On days when she's not working, Diana wears a hot-pink hooded sweat shirt and yoga pants, or pulls a loose T-shirt over shorts and winds her hair into a ponytail. She likes to go barefoot, and bounces heel-toe when she's talking. Though she is only 5 feet tall, this constant movement makes her seem somehow taller and more imposing.

Diana tries to be demure, calling even her contemporaries "ma'am." But when she's making a point, she has a way of boring into you with her chocolate-brown eyes, daring you to disagree. When she talks about what happened to Johnathan, her voice shakes with indignation. She curses and cries in the same sentence.

"Johnathan is everything," she says. "My only one."

* * *

Johnathan, 18 now, is tall and thin. He spikes his short, black hair with gel. His pale, heart-shaped face seems too heavy for his wiry neck, and his head seems to list forward. His eyes often scan the ground.

He loves fishing and scuba diving with his dad. When his friends used to come over, he would ride four-wheelers and play paintball with them. He earned a black belt in karate.

The one thing he always wanted to do was play football. As a child, he spent hours running plays around the yard with his dad. On weekends, they would flop on the couch and watch college games. Even as a little boy, Johnathan said, he wanted to be strong, rich and popular, like those guys on TV.

But his mom would never let him play on a team. Too dangerous.

He kept begging her, even into high school. He transferred into Pasco High from a small private school and didn't know anyone. Playing football would be a great chance to meet people, he told his mom. He wanted so much to fit in.

Diana suggested he try some other team sport. Why not cheerleading?

It was a far cry from football. But Johnathan had seen the college guys on the sidelines, lifting and twirling pretty girls. High school boy cheerleaders must do pretty much the same stuff, he figured.

"A lot of people know the cheerleaders," he said. "So I thought that'd be cool."

His first year on the squad was everything he had hoped for. Two other boys were on the team, and they hung out at lunch, after games. Sometimes the girls even invited them to their parties.

This year, Johnathan was alone on the team.

He was the only boy from Pasco High at cheerleading camp.

* * *

Two other cheerleaders got the same punishment as Johnathan for supposedly bringing alcohol to camp: They were kicked off the squad, suspended for three days and sent to the alcohol education program. They didn't fight it.

Diana did. The day Johnathan was disciplined, she drove him to Tampa for a lie detector test. She says she had no doubt he was telling the truth. She just wanted proof.

She still has the transcript.

"Did you bring any alcohol to (cheerleading camp)?" examiner Mike Alaiwat asked Johnathan.

"No."

"Did you ever take any alcoholic beverages to USF?"

"No." Not a blip from the machine.

"Based on careful evaluation of the physiological responses," the examiner wrote, "Mr. Johnathan Madison is being TRUTHFUL to the relevant issues."

Johnathan's mom called principal Reedy and told him about the polygraph. She told him she'd pay for all the cheerleaders to take lie detector tests, so he could find out what really happened at camp.

"Can you believe it?" Johnathan's mom asked later. "Not one of those girls took us up on that."

Johnathan's mom worried that being suspended for alcohol might hurt his chances of getting into a good college or working in law enforcement. Johnathan thought he might want to be a cop. Or a scuba diver. Or maybe a plastic surgeon.

The principal said students' disciplinary records are never released to colleges or potential employers. Diana didn't believe him.

She went to the school and filed a formal appeal of the punishment. The superintendent's office would hold a hearing and make a decision.

"No proof," she wrote. "Lack of evidence and false accusations."

* * *

At the drugstore one day, a girl told Diana something that made her even more certain Johnathan had been victimized. Heather Gaskin went to another high school, but Johnathan had met her months before while she was working at Walgreens. Heather had overheard some cheerleaders talking about Johnathan at church. What they had said wasn't very nice.

Diana drove Heather to the church. She had her stand exactly where she was standing when she heard the cheerleaders talking. Then Diana asked Heather to show her where the girls had been.

Diana took out a tape measure. She checked the distance between the two spots. She wrote the measurement in a notebook.

Then she drove Heather to see a notary.

Notarized statement from Heather Gaskin, Sept. 12, 2003: "At First Baptist Church of Dade City, [I] saw and heard . . . a Pasco High School cheerleader state to two other church members that "Johnathan Madison did not deserve to be a cheerleader because he is a boy. I will find a way to get him kicked off."'

So it was a conspiracy, Diana decided. Some of the girls had framed Johnathan to get him off the team.

She hired a private investigator to question all the cheerleaders. The detective crisscrossed Pasco County, visiting girls at their homes. He spent hours trying to persuade the cheerleaders' parents to let him interview their daughters.

Eventually, he talked to 20 of the 31 cheerleaders, Diana said.

Only one of the girls said she knew firsthand that Johnathan had brought alcohol to camp. But 16 other cheerleaders told the private eye that this girl was "known to be a liar." She also had been suspended over the incident.

To Diana, this much was clear now: The popular girl on the team had broken a rule and pinned the blame on Johnathan. All her little friends had rallied around her.

Diana vowed that the cheerleader would not get away with this.

* * *

She needed a lawyer. Johnathan's appeal hearing was coming up and she wanted help. But no one in Pasco County would take the case. "They're all scared of the school system," she said.

Finally, she drove 90 minutes to St. Petersburg and hired Brad Tobin, who has a solo practice downtown.

Johnathan's mom typed reports to her lawyer about everything she found out, no matter how small. No telling what might matter, she figured.

She told him the cheerleading coach had found an Evian water bottle that smelled like alcohol. "Johnathan didn't have Evian with him," Diana wrote to the lawyer. "See receipt attached."

School officials weren't interested in any of that. At the appeal hearing, they refused to let the private investigator testify. They wouldn't let the lawyer call cheerleaders as witnesses. They wouldn't let Johnathan's mom present her receipts and her measurements and her notarized statements.

The superintendent's office issued its ruling in a letter. "My decision," administrative assistant Robert Dorn wrote, "is to uphold the decision that Johnathan violated the Code of Conduct. Therefore I am upholding the . . . suspension. You have the right to appeal this to the school board."

* * *

How far would you go to clear your child's name?

Remember, this all started when a couple of kids had something to drink at summer camp. Typical teenage stuff. Nobody drove drunk, or even got drunk. Nobody got hurt. You wouldn't expect anybody's senior year to be ruined over it.

But to Diana Madison, this was war. Waging it had cost her $30,000 so far.

Johnathan was paying a price of his own. He wouldn't go to football games because he didn't want to face the girls from his squad. He couldn't concentrate. He started getting nosebleeds. Then migraines. He said he hated his life.

* * *

Diana had always led the campaign for Johnathan, but her husband was right there behind her. When the time came to appeal the suspension to the Pasco County School Board, John Madison drafted the letter.

"This entire affair is nothing more than disparate treatment of a male athlete on an otherwise all-female squad," he wrote.

He demanded the School Board give back Johnathan's cheerleading letter, clear his record and make the principal and cheerleading coach write letters of apology.

He wanted private tutoring for Johnathan "to allow him . . . to catch up on his classes due to the distracting environment these false and malicious allegations have caused." He demanded reimbursement for legal fees, lost wages and expenses.

He sent copies of the letter to the Department of Justice, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters.

* * *

On Dec. 2, four months after cheerleading camp, the School Board held the appeal hearing. The superintendent's office had said the Madisons would be able to call witnesses, but the board didn't let them. The members voted 5-0 to uphold the punishment.

Johnathan's parents had exhausted their options within the school system.

So they sued. They filed for a temporary injunction so Johnathan wouldn't have to serve the suspension. They wanted an emergency hearing.

It was the first time anyone had ever sued the Pasco schools over a three-day suspension, according to School Board lawyer Dennis Alfonso.

"Most parents eventually acquiesce and just let it become a learning experience," Alfonso said. "I don't know how it's gotten this far."

* * *

At school, Johnathan said, guys started shouting at him, telling him to lay off the cheerleaders. Why didn't he just drop it? Kids laughed at him in English class. Someone keyed his car in the student parking lot, he said. When he walked down the hall, he could hear people hissing, "fag." "Before all this, everyone seemed to like Johnathan," said Justin Hasse, one of the few classmates who stuck by him. Guys used to come over to Johnathan's house to play video games and have bonfires. "Then his parents started suing and stuff," Justin said. "And everyone thought that was wrong."

Just before Christmas, Johnathan stopped going to the cafeteria. Kids were being mean, he said.

So Diana started packing lunches and meeting him at school. While the other seniors were joking and jostling around the tables, Johnathan was eating with his mom in her car.

One night, Johnathan's mom got so frustrated at seeing her son upset that she called one of the cheerleaders. "I let her know if they started saying anything against Johnathan, I would go after them," Diana said.

How did that feel to Johnathan?

He thought for a minute. Answered slowly. "Good," he said, staring at the ground. "Safer.

"I guess."

* * *

The school made Johnathan serve the in-school suspension before his parents could get the emergency hearing. But they were still concerned about his permanent record and the alcohol education classes.

On Dec. 12, Judge Lynn Tepper listened to four hours of arguments in Pasco County Circuit Court.

She was outraged. "You know the chill in this courtroom isn't just the cold air," she wrote in her ruling. "There is a chill of rights in this courtroom."

The school's process in punishing Johnathan was a "silent witch hunt," the judge said. She found an "adequate showing of irreparable harm" and issued a temporary injunction.

At least for now, Johnathan's record could not say he brought alcohol to cheerleading camp and he wouldn't have to go to the education classes.

Johnathan's parents considered the temporary injunction a great victory. Johnathan seemed resigned to whatever happened next.

"I didn't even want it to have to go to the first appeal. But the school wouldn't listen to me," Johnathan said. "Of course I wish it was over with. I wish it didn't happen. But now that my parents have spent all this money, we can't just quit."

* * *

Diana wouldn't let Johnathan date until this year. "There have been girls who liked him. But he's never been interested," she said.

"He's not gay. He just wasn't ready."

When she decided he was ready, just before he turned 18, she picked out his first girlfriend: Nikki Castro, 19, a student she knew from a cosmetology class.

Diana asked the other students and teachers about Nikki. She made sure she doesn't drink. Doesn't smoke. She comes from a nice family and still lives with her parents.

"She's a good girl," Diana said. "She's always so respectful to everyone."

Johnathan's mom introduced him to Nikki. Soon Diana was packing lunch for three. Johnathan would walk out to his mom's car on his break, sit in the backseat eating sandwiches she'd made, with the girlfriend she picked out.

"I'm very particular," Diana said. "I go through his drawers. I listen in on his conversations. He knows. And I think he knows it's because I care.

"I'm not a bitch. I'm a mom."

A couple of months ago, Johnathan told his mom he was going to break up with Nikki. He didn't want to keep dragging her through all this court stuff, he said. It wasn't fair.

"But I told him, "They're not going to take what makes you happy,"' she said. "I like Nikki a lot. When I ask her to go to the school and pick up his work, she goes. I don't want to lose her."

So Johnathan didn't break up with Nikki.

* * *

To Johnathan's parents, everything that happened at school seemed part of the conspiracy against him.

When someone left a beer bottle in the student lot beside Johnathan's car, his mom wanted to have it fingerprinted. The sheriff declined to investigate.

One morning, Johnathan called from school and told his mom he just had to get out of there. Go, his mom told him. Leave. Cool off a bit. "There are rules you're supposed to sign in and out," Diana said. "But I'm not going to make him do that when he's melting down." So Johnathan went to McDonald's without telling the school office. When he came back, he got sentenced to one day of suspension.

"They can't do that to you!" his mom said. "I gave you permission to leave."

* * *

Reedy, the Pasco High principal, said he would love to discuss Johnathan Madison, explain the school's side. But because of privacy rules he needs the family's permission to do so.

How about it, Mrs. Madison?

The principal is "not allowed to talk about my child," Johnathan's mother said.

"That will all come out in court."

* * *

In February, a boy winked at Johnathan during Algebra I. He ran out of class and called his mom.

"I'm not going back," he told her. He couldn't take the teasing and harassment anymore.

Johnathan's mom took him to a doctor, to a psychiatrist, a psychologist. She sent him to specialists, who gave him antidepressants. Johnathan has attention-deficit disorder and the stress has made it worse, his mom said.

"They have caused my child to go into a whirlwind of depression and anxiety," Diana said.

She tried to get the school to declare her son mentally ill so he could get a homebound teacher at county expense. But the system turned her down because Johnathan was physically capable of leaving home.

"There's damage," Diana said later, venting. "Why doesn't he qualify?"

She faxed forms to other doctors. She wrote the governor. She called the state Department of Education and the federal office of civil rights. She flew to Atlanta and Washington, D.C., to meet with "antibully" activists. They wrote letters for Johnathan.

In March, the school system backed down and started sending a tutor to Johnathan's house.

He was so far behind with his schoolwork he wasn't sure he would graduate.

* * *

Is it all worth it? The Madisons have spent $60,000 so far. Plus there's the time investment, Johnathan's lost senior year, his pain and humiliation. Johnathan already has served his suspension. His cheerleading days are over. Why don't they drop the fight over the alcohol education classes and put this all behind them?

Ask these questions of Diana and she jumps up, yelling.

"Why?" she says by the breakfast bar in her kitchen. "Why? Because he didn't do anything wrong! A lot of parents seem to think I'm taking this way too seriously. But I'm like, "No. He didn't do anything to deserve this.' I can't see any reason not to keep fighting."

* * (

In the past 10 months, Johnathan has worried his pale forehead into a washboard of wrinkles. His dark eyebrows always seem arched in alarm. Under the soft down of new whiskers, his cheeks have sunken. He has lost 16 pounds.

For the first time since third grade, he couldn't sign up for spring karate competitions. He's too weak. Anxiety has whittled away the muscles he labored for years to build.

Most mornings, when he drags himself out of bed, Johnathan pulls on three Tommy polos at a time, layering the shirts to hide the shallows between his shoulders. His mom keeps shoveling protein powder into his grape juice.

He doesn't want to look at the yearbook. He missed so many days of school for court dates and doctors' appointments that it was hard to catch up on his class work. His grade point average plummeted from 3.2 to 1.6.

And he didn't go to prom, even though his dad offered to rent a helicopter for him and Nikki.

Last week, the family sued one of Johnathan's former teammates, saying she spread rumors that he brought alcohol to camp and came to school drunk. The family still has to go back to court to try to get a permanent injunction. By the time it's all over, Johnathan's high school classmates might be college freshmen. Everyone will have moved on but him.

* * *

Just before graduation, someone asked Johnathan if he missed anything about Pasco High.

He ran his left hand through his spiky black hair. His pale face dropped.

"I miss being able to hang out with my friends," he said.

Johnathan's mom, who is usually nearby, looked at him as if that wasn't the point. "Well," she asked, "do you miss the retaliation?"

He picked up a pencil and rubbed it between his hands. He didn't meet his mom's eyes. Finally, he spoke softly, into his chin. "No."

"Do you miss feeling picked on?" Johnathan's mom asked.

He didn't look up. He didn't answer.

* * *

The boy who became a cheerleader to make friends and become popular spent the past two months of his senior year at home with his mom.

He studied algebra, struggled to understand Of Mice and Men. On Wednesdays and Fridays, his tutor came over to help. He managed to finish his studies and get his diploma, but he didn't walk with his classmates this month.

As for college, well, Johnathan was too stressed to take the SATs. He missed most fall admissions deadlines. So next year, Johnathan said, he probably will go to Hillsborough Community College.

And live at home.

- Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com

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