Lifetime Revives Another Cheerleading Scandal

The tale of the Fab Five always seemed like a drama made for TV. A group of senior varsity cheerleaders in a Texas exurb, led by the principal's daughter, provoke a local scandal with their rowdy and randy behavior, culminating when they post sexy photos of themselves online that get passed around the internet. Now, not surprisingly, the real-life story has hit the small screen two years later—or at least the version that is told by the girls' former cheerleading coach.

The coach, Michaela Ward, says she was ostracized and faced financial ruin as she fought school administrators over the clique of misbehaving cheerleaders at McKinney North High School. Ward eventually cashed in on the scandal—to much dismay in McKinney—when she told her story to the media and the Lifetime Television channel. "Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal," a two-hour movie loosely based on the true story, premiered Saturday.

For those who missed the frenzy of news coverage that began in January 2007, when broke the story in the national press, the movie version is an entertaining morality tale with Ward styled as the brave but naïve crusader for school discipline. In the film, Ward's character continues to hit her teen charges with demerits even when their parents threaten to sue, while actress Tatum O'Neal plays the school principal – a single mom trying to win her daughter's affection by bending the rules. With its preachy romp through the dark side of teen tribalism, the Fab Five movie is in the tradition of other cinematic displays of fanatic Texan athleticism like "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom."

By all accounts the girls' behavior is wildly exaggerated on screen, but it makes for good TV -- whether you're laughing with or at them as they shimmy in short skirts through provocative routines and guzzle booze in the school parking lot. In both the movie and real life, the girls are kicked off the squad, the principal is suspended, coach Ward quits in protest and then is partially vindicated when a private investigator declares that school administrators evaded responsibility for their behavior.

The true story becomes even grimmer where the movie leaves off. The former principal and assistant principal of McKinney North High were both forced to resign. The Fab Five girls were stalked by online perverts, according to one of their fathers, and left for college haunted by their reputations. McKinney North students past and present saw the stature of their school, considered one of the best in the state, "felled in one swoop," as one student put it.

Ward, the young cheerleading coach and geography teacher, says she was finished as an educator at age 26. She sued to get her old job back, but the case was thrown out. Ward, now 28, applied for some 500 teaching jobs in four states and almost lost her home to foreclosure, she says. She still coaches cheerleading at a local gym, but it took more than a year to find another job – working for the parent of one of her former cheerleading charges (not a Fab Five parent). "My husband and I, we almost lost everything. It was a tough year, but I know that every decision I made was the right one," she told NEWSWEEK. Ward won't say how much Lifetime paid her for the story, but it was a "blessing."

Ward insists that the movie wasn't meant to be a documentary. But a McKinney school spokesman says Ward's portrayal in the movie leaves out a few important details, like how she walked away from her teaching job and only asked for it back months later. (Ward says she was forced out by a hostile environment.) Regardless, changes were made in the schools, including the appointment of a district-wide cheerleading coordinator, a new principal at McKinney North High, and stricter enforcement of the rules for all students. Students and teachers have moved on, says McKinney schools spokesman Cody Cunningham, and most McKinney residents who settled down in front of the television Saturday night for the Fab Five premiere did so "with a healthy sense of humor. The movie is nothing more than entertainment. We're not losing any sleep over it."

None of the Fab Five cheerleaders or their parents, including the former principal, responded to requests for comment from NEWSWEEK. Back when the scandal broke, one Fab Five member brushed off her behavior, saying they were just five best friends whose goofy hijinks had been blown out of proportion. "We're just fun girls. People make mistakes," she said. "OK, some cheerleaders go awry. Why do people care? Let's talk about Africa and blood diamonds, or something important."

Ward says she knew her actions would be unpopular with some, and hailed by others. "Nobody can deny the fact that I was the only person who was willing to stand up for what was right and it made a significant difference in that school. Two principals are gone and a culture that had festered at McKinney North was completely changed within months," she says. "Had they listened to me and looked into the allegations none of this would have happened, there wouldn't have been a scandal of McKinney. I would be teaching in a classroom somewhere, not making movies with Lifetime."

Ward credits the movie for conveying her intended message – that parents and educators need to set limits for their children. For others in McKinney, including the mother of one former Fab Five cheerleader, the movie scrapes a raw wound. Ward says she had to call police last week when a parent of one of the Fab Five sent her more than a dozen text messages and screamed into the phone "Why do you keep hurting people?" Ward, who had planned to host a viewing party at a local restaurant, canceled the gathering.