Stung

Seven African-American girls tried out for the Texas City Stingarettes drill team this year. None of them made the squad.

When Kristi Columbus cried after she was not chosen for the Stingarettes drill team at Texas City High School last month, her father initially put it down to disappointment. But when his 15-year-old daughter, an honor student who has her future as a radiologist mapped out, told him she wanted to drop out of school or transfer to a less racist district, Karl Columbus started listening.

"My daughter shouldn't have to be fighting these battles," said Columbus, 57. "These battles have already been fought. I have done my best to raise her by myself since her mother passed, and I don't want things like this to hurt her."

Blocks away, Mike Roberson was holding a similar conversation with his tearful daughter Chelsea, another honor student who didn't make the team. Chelsea and Kristi took dance lessons together in preparation for tryouts for the team, which performs half-time routines decked out in short sequined dresses, cowboy hats and boots. The girls practiced drills, high kicks and splits for hours a day on quiet streets in front of their houses and in their living rooms, hoping to become Stingarettes.

Kristi Columbus told her dad, Karl, that she wants to 
transfer out of the district.
Zoe Carmichael
Kristi Columbus told her dad, Karl, that she wants to transfer out of the district.

When Roberson found that none of seven black girls who tried out had made the team, he was worried. When he discovered that all of the judges who chose the team members were white, he was even more concerned.

"At the risk of sounding stereotypical, I think something is wrong when not one of seven black girls can make a dance team," said Roberson, 39, who owns the Cabo restaurants downtown and on the Richmond Strip. "That is like seven black guys who can't make a basketball team."

Roberson and other African-American parents in this largely blue-collar city known for its refineries are organizing, visiting the principal's office, filing complaints and charging racism because no black girls were chosen. Some want to sue the school district. Roberson is considering organizing a strike of black football and basketball players until black girls are included on the Stingarettes.

"We are not just going to let this go," said Chelsea's mother, Felicia Roberson. "We will take it all the way to the supreme court if we have to."

The superintendent, school board members, principal and drill team instructor did not return calls from the Houston Press. They referred all calls to the district's public relations representative, Stephen Hadley.

"There have been some concerns raised, and certainly, every time we get concerns raised, we do everything we can to get to the bottom of the matter," Hadley said. "We are doing what we can to determine what happened and take appropriate precautions. These are very serious allegations and we are going to consider this very carefully. This is not something we take lightly."

Texas City High School is 18 percent African-American, 26.8 percent Hispanic, 54.2 percent Caucasian and less than 1 percent Asian and Native American, Hadley said.

This year, no blacks made the Stingarettes. In 2002, one out of 54 team members was black, Hadley said. In 2001, four of 54 were black. In 2000, three of 60 were black, and in 1999 four out of 50 were black. In 2002, 15 Hispanics made the squad. In both 2001 and 2000, 16 Hispanics were included, and in 1999, 12 were selected. One Asian has made the team in the past five years.

The judges were all white this year, Hadley said, with one judge from Clements High, one from Klein High, one from La Porte ISD and one from Tomball High. Hadley said the judges, all drill team instructors, are hired to rate the participants in categories including showmanship, precision, style, grace, spatial awareness, coordination, rhythm, memory, timing and alignment.

Chelsea and Kristi aren't the first black girls upset because they weren't included in the Stingarettes. Girls who have attended the school say the drill team has a reputation for excluding blacks, and in the mid-1990s, the exclusion of one black girl from the team came close to resulting in a lawsuit.

Janice Weatherspoon filed a complaint charging racism against the school district after her daughter Jayla was not selected as a Stingarette by an all-white group of judges. The school redid the tryouts under the supervision of the Texas Education Agency, Weatherspoon said, and with a diverse panel of judges, Jayla was chosen. It was only the school's commitment to having a diversified panel to select the drill team that kept her from suing, Weatherspoon said.

Hadley said he knows little about the complaint except to confirm that one was filed in the 1990s and that a lawsuit was threatened. He said the only administration official who has information on the complaint is out of the country.

Weatherspoon is furious that the same situation appears to be taking place again and said she intends to sue the district.

"They want skinny, rich white girls," she said. "They want the parents to have a certain standing in the community. Maybe they just don't understand, but we've got rhythm. If somebody doesn't understand our rhythm, they may be like, nhaa, nhaa, nhaa. But we are good."

Weatherspoon said when she asked the administration to let her see her daughter's score sheet after the initial tryouts, she found there wasn't one. "They already knew who they wanted," Weatherspoon said.

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