Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Friday that newly hired coach Ozell Williams has been fired from his job at East High School. Williams is a Guinness World Record holder and former contestant on the NBC reality series "America's Got Talent."
The allegations involve at least eight girls, according to Denver's NBC affiliate, KUSA. In one clip obtained by the station, a 13-year-old incoming freshman shrieks "please stop" nine times during a span of 24 seconds. The technique, known as "forced splits," happened at a cheer camp last June and was captured in videos that were later provided to school officials.
"I have watched all of the videos. And as a superintendent, and as a father, and as an athlete, they are deeply disturbing," Boasberg said in a statement. "What happened was wrong. Under no circumstances should a young person be in a situation where they are suffering physical or emotional harm. Under no circumstances should a young person be forced to continue any activity beyond the point where they have expressed their desire to stop."
Boasberg said officials at the high school found out about the videos in June, when the mother of one of the teenage girls raised concerns, but did not fire Williams.
"It is also clear that the decision at that time not to terminate the employment of cheer coach Mr. Ozell Williams was wrong," Boasberg said. "What is shown in the videos is extraordinarily distressing."
Boasberg said neither he nor any member of his senior team knew of the existence of the videos until earlier this week, when the school district received a public records request from the media. Five high school officials, including Williams, were later placed on administrative leave. A child-abuse investigation by Denver Police is ongoing.
A call to Williams' business, Mile High Tumblers, was not returned Saturday, but he told KUSA that he learned the split technique while in Chicago and New Orleans. He has been a regular halftime performer at Denver Broncos football games, and set the world record for consecutive handsprings - 57 - in 2013. His stint on "America's Got Talent" came in 2015.
On his website, Williams offers some insight into his training philosophy. "Our mission," it says, "is to develop strong athletes and well-rounded citizens by teaching discipline, responsibility, respect, sense of ownership and other characteristics that mimic upstanding citizenship."
"This is a grown man," Kirsten Wakefield told KUSA, "pushing my 13-year-old against her will."
Another parent, Cheri Nickolay, said watching the videos made her ill. Her daughter has quit the cheerleading squad, she said, adding, "I don't know how you could justify that."
Boasberg said the district has hired a law firm to investigate which high school and district employees knew of the forced split technique - and when they knew about it.
"I want to say this as clearly as I can," he said. "We were wrong not to have taken certain actions in June and we are doing everything in our power to ensure the safety and well-being of every one of our students."
In addition to Williams and his assistant coach, Mariah Cladis, Principal Andy Mendelsberg and Assistant Principal Lisa Porter were put on leave, as was an attorney employed by the school district, Michael Hickman.
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