Benched in Texas

updated 11/25/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/25/1996 01:00AM

ON TOP OF THE NEATLY ARRANGED dresser in Callie Smartt's bedroom sits a small framed photograph of nine beaming cheerleaders. There, in the center of the 1995 Andrews High School freshman squad, Callie sits in her wheelchair poised for action and wearing a big grin. "Most people don't think a handicapped child can do anything," says Callie, 15, who has cerebral palsy and speaks with some difficulty. "I wanted to show people I could."

For a while, she did just that. As an honorary member of her school's freshman cheerleading squad, Callie rooted loudly for the Mustangs football team, all the while zipping up and down the sidelines in her motorized wheelchair. In the West Texas oil town of Andrews (pop. 10,000), where home games draw crowds of up to 4,000 and where the Mustangs are so revered that a local video store and lumberyard are named after the team, being a cheerleader can make a girl feel like a star. Callie didn't think of it that way; just "being part of things" was enough.

But even that was taken from her three weeks ago, when Callie, a diligent student, was told by the school principal that her honorary position with the squad was being eliminated at season's end, and that to make the varsity team next spring, she would have to try out like any other candidate—performing a routine of splits and tumbles that challenges the most athletic of girls. The school said Callie might be endangered by an errant football. Officials refused to elaborate, saying in a prepared statement, "All students...are given equal opportunity to participate in any school activity. The safety of the students, however, is of paramount concern."

Then, Peter Francis, a local insurance agent whose daughter Jennifer heads the squad, told the Washington Post there's "the issue of a babysitting service—I don't like to call it that." Some cheerleaders have complained that when Callie's mother, Fonda, 43, a bookkeeper at a local business, can't make a game, they and the other cheerleaders have to take Callie to the bathroom. But Fonda says that's not so. She rarely misses a game, and when she does, a friend takes Callie along. Ashley Gray, a former Andrews teacher who was last year's sponsor of the school's three squads, says of the complaints about Callie that "a lot of this is personal. If she had the legs to get up and move, she'd be out there with the best of them. She hollers. She shouts. She's got as much spirit as anyone."

Callie has shown that spirit since she drew her first breath. Growing up in the family's single-story brick home in Andrews, she bounced on the backyard trampoline with her brothers B.J., now 20, Cooper, 13, and sister Sky, 18, rode a specially designed tricycle and once even bungee-jumped. In middle school she acquired the nickname Hot Rod—"maybe because I left peel-out marks all over the school," she muses.

By the time high school rolled round, she was full of confidence. Her best friend, Jayna Reid, 17, says Callie is never flustered by impolite gawkers: "When we go through the mall, people stare, and she stares right back."

At the end of Callie's eighth-grade year, Debbie Newbrough, a school diagnostician and then the sponsor in charge of overseeing the cheerleading squads, invited her to join. "Callie did everything the cheerleaders did," says her mother. "She made signs, attended the fund-raisers and went to practices. Everything they did, she was there." Until the day last spring when Callie was dropped from the squad as suddenly as she had been recruited. "She couldn't quit crying, couldn't talk," says Fonda, who went to school to take her daughter home. Being dumped, Callie says, "really broke my heart."

After her mother protested, the school's principal, Mike Fetner, agreed to reinstate Callie, but only on restricted terms. Away games plus all basketball games and volleyball matches were out. At home football games, Callie could no longer roam the sidelines but would have to stay put—at least six feet from the others. Fonda seems even more outraged than Callie about the restrictions. "If you're able," says Fonda, "it should be a privilege to help someone."

ANNE-MARIE O'NEILL
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Andrews

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