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All Star Athlete or Abused Adolescent?


Travelling to Worlds and the Summit is the reward for being a competitive champion who has exceeded his or her challenges for the season and invited to compete with the best of the best.

Not everyone sees this as a good thing.

After a season which already includes, on average for an elite athlete, five travel comps (to Dallas, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, etc) by the end of the year many CheerMADs are left to deal with a challenge themselves: school absences.

Many of us have received those computerized “warning letters” spit out automatically when a child has missed (in our school district) five days of school. That’s two and a half comps' worth of travel days. In addition to the letters of warnings, we’re also dealing with less-than helpful teachers unwilling to provide school work in advance or help when the athlete returns (it's just cheerleading afterall).

Repetitiously lifting a teammate at The Summit, missing phys ed.

And even though our athlete is rigorously attending up to ten hours a week worth of sweat-producing, muscle-ache-inducing practices, missing one hour a week of too many phys ed classes earns them a “C” or a failing grade for not attending enough of the school’s 60 minutes of play.

I’ve seen firsthand how things can quickly go awry.

When a child misses too much school, it is considered to be a situation called “Adult Failure to Cause School Attendance.” Add to that the bruises inflicted from a falling flier or a fellow-tumbler who gets in the way, an All Star athlete presents as an “abused or neglected child.”

When Rachel was asked by a teacher if she still "did gymnastics" my bright 10-year old truthfully answered “no.” She tumbled for competitive cheer. But her answer didn’t explain the recent bruising on her face (received from a kick from a wayward, non-straight-line-tumbling teammate) and the occasional noticeable bruises on her arms and legs (even though she considered the marks on her thighs a medal of honor for slapping them so hard whether marking or being clean). Combined with the four-day weekend she was returning from, it was surmised that Rachel was being abused, kept home to give her bruises more time to heal and hide the abuse.

In Massachusetts, when a school reports the offense of “Adult Failure to Cause School Attendance” a parent receives an invitation to juvenile trial court and an automatic issue of a 51A by the state Department of Child and Family services which conducts its own investigation.

It’s scary to receive the notice that reads:

Section 51A. (a) A mandated reporter who, in his professional capacity, has reasonable cause to believe that a child is suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from: (i) abuse inflicted upon him which causes harm or substantial risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare, including sexual abuse; (ii) neglect, including malnutrition and failure to provide an education; (iii) physical dependence upon an addictive drug at birth… or (iv) being a sexually exploited child; or (v) being a human trafficking victim as defined by section 20M of chapter 233.

With all due respect to crack babies, this home-room parent, team mother, assistant Brownie leader, avid helicopter mom was devastated. As a reporter who has written about children whisked into foster care, questions asked later, I was scared.

Rachel, 10, competed at NCA-Dallas and won was no pressure compared to the pressure felt when DCF investigated.

After a six month go-round with DCF, which resulted in all charges dismissed and “case closed,” Rachel’s school adjustment counselor (truant officer) apologized for the “grievous disservice to Rachel” because of all the anxiety caused and panic attacks she developed as a result of the process (wondering if today was going to be the day she'd be taken away from her family).

Admittedly, absences are a serious problem and a CheerMAD has to be proactive. For years, athletes have been home-school. Today more and more are participating in online educations.

Last spring I attended information sessions for TEC Connection’s Academy: the Massachusetts’ Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s accredited virtual school. The tuition-tree online public school for Grades K–12, Connections’ Academy has online schools all over the country, wherever states have approved virtual learning (for more information go to http://www.connectionsacademy.com).

I learned many online students are gifted children who

balance school with other interests: highlighted were child actors, future Olympian and PGA participants who,

like the All Star athlete, have extraordinary time-management issues. I expect in another ten years, probably less, online schools will become more the norm, similar to telecommuting to work via computer.

One mom in particular and I spent a lot of time talking about online learning. Tracey Cayford's daughter, Jorden, 16, was a member of SS5 Lady Pros and Rachel had just finished her last Showstopper season double-rostering and maxing out the gym's travel comps.

In the end, Rachel didn’t attend because after being home-schooled for sixth grade, Rachel felt isolated and wanted to go to Middle School as much for the social aspect as the academic.

It was a tough year, mostly because of the repercussions we’re