The pictures posted on MySpace.com looked like the latest installment of "Girls Gone Wild." In them, cheerleaders from McKinney North High School in Texas exhibited all variety of bawdy behavior. One shot showed a bikini-clad girl sharing a bottle of booze with a friend. Another featured a cheerleader and several other girls in risqué poses offering glimpses of their panties. But the most infamous photo of all was taken in a Condoms To Go store. Five smiling cheerleaders dressed in uniform posed with large candles shaped like penises. At least one of them appeared to be simulating fellatio. "It would be an overstatement to describe any of the photographs as pornographic, but it would be an understatement to describe them as harmless high jinks," wrote Harold Jones, a lawyer hired by the school district to investigate the incident. "Quite frankly, I personally found it 'creepy'." (Article continued below...)
The photos are at the heart of a scandal that has rocked McKinney, an affluent bedroom community north of Dallas. By many accounts, the group of cheerleaders, known as the "Fab Five," were out of control—an elite social clique that flagrantly flouted school rules but faced few sanctions. In many ways, they seemed like the stereotypical "mean girls" that periodically trigger bouts of consternation among parents. But there's an added wrinkle to their tale: the Fab Five's alleged ringleader was the daughter of McKinney North's principal, Linda Theret. Amid charges that Theret gave the girls preferential treatment, the school district launched a $40,000 investigation conducted by Jones in the fall. His 70-page report, which harshly criticized Theret and assistant principal Richard Brunner, helped prompt Theret's resignation on Dec. 21 (Brunner remains on paid leave as he fights to retain his job). But Jones's report takes plenty of others to task as well, from parents to police. "Kids will be kids, but adults have to be adults," he wrote. "Sadly, in this saga, I was struck by the reticence of many adults to accept the role of 'being the grown-up'."
The cheerleaders had reportedly been a menace long before the condom-store episode, according to the report. When one teacher told a squad member to quit chatting on her cell phone in class, the girl replied, "Shut up, I'm talking to my Mom." On a separate occasion, she offered this response to the teacher's reprimand: "Pull your panties out of a wad." "Gang members were nothing compared to these girls," the teacher told Jones. "They believe they cannot be touched." The girls were apparently just as ornery in their cheerleading activities, leading five coaches to quit in the last three years. The principal's daughter flipped off one former coach. But instead of kicking the daughter off the squad, school administrators allowed her to quit so she could try out the following year. After the incident, the coach told Jones, Theret "tried to ruin my life over this. I was called a liar, crazy, on meds." (Theret's attorney denies this.)
The problems culminated this fall under the most recent cheerleading coach, Michaela Ward. Though her relationship with the girls started off amicably, things quickly soured. Among the pranks they allegedly pulled on Ward: giving her what the report described as a "chocolate tampon" and sending racy text messages from her cell phone to her husband and another coach. When the condom-store photos hit the Internet, they triggered a firestorm. Now taking a hard line, Theret, according to her attorney, recommended kicking the five girls off the squad. But a committee of administrators from the school and the district recommended 15-day suspensions for the girls in the drinking photo and 30-day suspensions for those in the condom-store snapshot. After parents protested that the latter picture shouldn't be treated more harshly than the former, the superintendent of schools agreed and reduced the penalty for the condom-store photo to 15 days. In the aftermath, Ward warned the cheerleaders that she would kick them off if there were any more incidents. "Good luck with that," one is said to have replied. Not surprisingly, there were more incidents, including the night of the homecoming dance, when some of the cheerleaders arrived in a limo packed with students who had apparently been boozing.
All of this might have remained below the radar had it not been for Ward. In October, she abruptly resigned and recounted her experiences with the girls to the media. In the resulting uproar, the school district called in Jones, whose report makes clear that he was as dismayed by the behavior of the adults as he was by that of the Fab Five. He criticized Ward for abetting the cheerleaders' misconduct. He lambasted school administrators for giving the girls far too many second chances. And he rebuked Theret for failing to balance her dueling obligations as a mother and a principal.
The parties involved, of course, dispute these conclusions. Theret's attorney, Bob Hinton, says that she was doing her best to control her recalcitrant daughter and that as principal, she propelled the school to the "pinnacle" of academic excellence—a point that Jones agrees with. One of the Fab Five claims that their depiction as "Girls Gone Wild" is unjustified. Critics "made us out to be people we're not," she says. Ward didn't return calls for comment.
At McKinney North, the tumult is finally beginning to subside. None of the Fab Five remain on the team, according to one of the ousted cheerleaders. Theret recently reached a settlement with the school board, agreeing to resign in exchange for a payment of around $75,000 and a letter of recommendation. In her wake, an interim principal has been named. "We want to move on," says a McKinney schools spokesman. Perhaps now that the reign of the Fab Five is over, they can.