Last week, when a male student at Timpview High School in Provo, Utah, complained to a school counselor that the uniforms worn by cheerleaders on game day were causing him to have “impure” thoughts in class, the conversation could have ended there. But it didn’t.
After the teen said that he was distracted by the cheerleaders’ skirts and his mother emailed an administrator, the school’s cheerleading coach was alerted about the concerns, and 44 girls on the Timpview Thunderbirds’ cheer squads were told not to wear their uniforms to school last Friday before the football game against the Alta Hawks.
Now school administrators are trying to clear up the kerfuffle, which they insist was simply a misunderstanding gone awry. But cheerleaders say they didn’t get that impression.
Speaking anonymously because they are afraid of being ostracized for discussing what happened, several members of Timpview’s cheer squad tell PEOPLE exclusively that school administrators held a meeting after the boy’s complaint and couldn’t come to a decision about what action – if any – should be taken.
“But then after the meeting, one of the assistant principals communicated to the cheer coach that we shouldn’t be wearing our uniforms to school,” says one cheerleader. “All of us were trying to decide which skirt to wear on Friday and our coach told us that we couldn’t wear them anymore. We asked what would happen if we wore them anyway, and she advised us not to. So we didn’t. Instead we wore best dress the next day.”
Timpview school administrators did not return PEOPLE’s request for comment.
Most of the cheerleaders were upset about what happened, with one telling PEOPLE, “it’s giving this boy power that when he grows up and does something to a girl, he can blame it on her skirt being too short. It really made me angry. Why should this boy have control over what we wear?”
Several of the girls’ parents were also frustrated, calling the situation “nonsense.”
“It puts unfair pressure on the cheerleaders,” one mother tells PEOPLE. “I was shocked when my daughter came home and told me, ‘We can’t wear our uniforms on game day. They’re giving boys’ dirty thoughts.’ I want the school to have a meeting with all of the cheerleaders and all of the parents, and I want our girls to walk out of that meeting with their heads held high. This boy’s problem has nothing to do with them.”
Cheer advisor Krissy Fry wouldn’t comment, telling PEOPLE that “there really is no story – it was blown out of proportion.”
But Caleb Price, spokesperson for the Provo City School District, says that administrators are now investigating to “find out exactly what the cheerleaders were told that led them to wear regular clothes to school on game day” instead of their traditional blue-and-orange cheer uniforms to promote school spirit.
“It’s a misunderstanding between the cheerleading advisor and a member of the school administration who gave her a message about the boy’s concerns,” Price tells PEOPLE. “The school was never going to say you can’t wear your uniforms or dress in a certain way.”
The cheerleaders were understandably upset, says Price, and when word leaked out about the controversy, social media sites were flooded with comments.
“They are sexualizing a school uniform and I think it’s just disgusting – they are objectifying these girls,” wrote Nicole Wood, a sister of one of the cheerleaders, on the Mormon Stories Podcast Facebook page. “I feel like this obsession with female modesty is just feeding into the rape culture that is far too prevalent in the area.”
Timpview High is located in predominantly-Mormon Utah County near Brigham Young University, where controversy ignited earlier this year over female students who reported being raped and were subsequently punished by the school’s honor code.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, young men and women are taught that their bodies are sacred and that they should dress modestly to show reverence. But this often leads to “body shaming,” says Kate Kelly, the founder of Ordain Women who was excommunicated from the LDS Church in 2014 for advocating female entry into the all-male Mormon priesthood.
“In a culture where females are responsible for all sexual ‘sin,’ it unfortunately makes sense that girls – even talented athletes and performers – would be shamed for what they wear,” Kelly tells PEOPLE.
“A common refrain for young women in Mormon-populated Utah,” she says, “is that ‘modest is hottest,’ which simultaneously sexualizes girls and shames them for how they choose to dress. This is consistent with Mormon rape culture, where the burden is put on women and girls to fend off sexual advances with forethought and planning, but men are often pitted as victims of the sexual advances of women and girls.”
Boys at Timpview High School who are preparing to become missionaries for the Mormon Church at age 18, Kelly adds, “are in a way being warned against the (make-believe) advances of these girls in order to maintain their purity.”
It’s a dilemma that some say would be laughable if it weren’t so prevalent in Utah.
“Baseball players get to wear their tight pants,” one cheerleader tells PEOPLE, “and nobody ever makes a fuss. So if anybody is bothered by us wearing our uniforms to represent our school, then maybe they shouldn’t come to the football games.”
“Or maybe we should show up at the next game to cheer in our pioneer clothes,” she adds. “We’ll see if they have any ‘impure’ thoughts about that.”