Texas Grand Jury Reviews Cheerleader 'Bonding' Case

Junior varsity cheerleaders "initiation" could lead to criminal charges.

Oct. 15, 2008 — -- A Texas grand jury is considering hazing-related criminal charges for a group of varsity cheerleaders as well as a student manager and school mascot for allegedly forcing members of the junior varsity cheerleading squad to participate in what prosecutors say was an initiation-style ritual.

In Katy, Texas, on an early morning in late July, Morton Ranch High School junior varsity cheerleading co-captain Courtney Nickell, 15, says she woke up with a start when a group of teenage girls reportedly rushed into her bedroom, blindfolded her and bound her wrists with duct tape.

According to Nickell, she was carried by the girls to a waiting car and thrown in the back seat. Not long after that, she said, she, along with other members of the junior varsity squad, were thrown into a pool. Nickell said her wrists were still bound.

"I could hear some of the other members yelling, 'I can't swim, I can't swim. Stop, please. Don't push me in,'" Nickell said. "Our hands were still bound together and our blindfolds were still on, which terrified me even more. I didn't know if I was going to come back up and live or if I was not going to make it."

Nickell said the ordeal, which included having soiled shorts placed on her head, lasted nearly four hours and was all part of an initiation ritual conducted by the varsity cheerleading squad along with a student manager and the school mascot. No one was physically hurt, she says.

Cailyn Mothersbaugh, a member of the varsity cheerleading squad, said that the incident was not hazing and that the girls were "all laughing."

Mothersbaugh also told "Good Morning America" that the girls' hands were not bound when they were thrown in the pool and that the night was part of a tradition of "bonding."

"When I got punched in the face, I laughed about it," Mothersbaugh said, referring to when she went through a similar experience while on the JV squad. "It was fun. I wasn't going to be mad at one of the girls because it's team bonding. It brought us together."

Nickell's mother, Katherine, said she did not see it that way.

"I trusted these people. They told me they were just going to take her to Ihop for breakfast and then when I heard what they did to [Courtney Nickell] it just ... it's not something that any mother or parent's going to want to hear that's happened to their child," she said through tears. "You have a child in this world and you're there to protect them and I wasn't there to protect her."

Cheerleader Hazing or Bonding?

"I don't care if you think it was a joke or something. It's not a joke," she said. "You're hurting people. And it's not just the people you're doing it to, it's their families."

Nickell said that for her, the effects of the incident have still not worn off.

"At school I have been stared at, have been talked about, whispered behind my back, threats being made," she said. "I've had nightmares about people dragging me off and taking me places."

According to psychologist and hazing expert Dr. Susan Lipkins, whether the incident is determined to be hazing or not, it is just the latest in an escalating trend across the country.

"Hazing is increasing in severity and is more aggressive and violent and more sexualized," Lipkins told "GMA." "It has moved from college down to high school, even middle school. In fact, 24 percent of the kids in church groups are even hazed."

Last week, the University of Wisconsin marching band was suspended over hazing allegations including sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse.

In 2003, an Illinois girls football initiation sent five girls to the hospital. One girl said she had a "pig intestine wrapped around [her] neck."

"Everybody can say, 'Oh, that's funny' and 'What's the big deal?' but that's just the beginning," Lipkins said. "What we know with students is they make things larger and larger. They want to outdo the next person."

School district officials said they have suspended all varsity cheerleading activities at Morton Ranch High School in Katy for the rest of the year.

For a girl that has been cheering since the third grade, even if she gets to pick up the pompoms again, it may not be the same for Nickell.

"It's just, it's been devastating," she said.