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Denver High School Cheerleading Coach Fired After Videos Show 'Forced Splits'

A Denver high school cheerleading coach was fired Friday and a police investigation is underway after cellphone videos revealed cheerleaders being pushed into splits, according to the school superintendent.

The videos show East High School coach Ozell Williams holding onto several cheerleaders and urging them to power through as they protest and cry out in pain, their arms pinioned by teammates.

Williams told The Denver Post on Thursday that it has been taken out of context. "You can definitely say that what was in the video could be seen in a different light," he said. Williams added that he could say no more at this time.

"I want to be very clear that this technique is a dangerous and unacceptable," Denver Public Schools superintendent Tom Boasberg said. "We do not permit forced split or any practice or technique that puts the physical safety or emotional well-being of any of our kids at risk."

The videos were recorded (apparently, by fellow cheerleaders) at a cheer camp in June, Boasberg said.

On June 15, a mother complained about the videos to the school's athletic director. A meeting was arranged between school officials, the coach and the girl's family, Boasberg said, but no further action was taken until KUSA-TV aired the footage earlier this week.

Boasberg said that not doing more earlier was a mistake. "At that time, the decision should have been made to terminate the employment of the coach and, I believe, to report what was observed on the video to police."

The assistant cheer coach, high school principal, assistant principal and Denver Public Schools deputy general counsel have all been placed on leave.

While training for a sport can often involve pushing oneself, discomfort and even pain, Boasberg said that is not what the videos were about. "This was way beyond that line."

Police have opened a child abuse investigation, reports The Associated Press.

"On a personal note, as hard as it was, I have watched all of the videos," Boasberg said. "As a superintendent, and as a father, and as an athlete, they are deeply disturbing. What happened was wrong."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amy Held is an editor on the newscast unit. She regularly reports breaking news on air and online.