Former cheerleader suing school, elected officials over national anthem protests

PHOTO: Tommia Dean joined "The View" today to discuss why she believes officials tried to stop the protest.PlayABC News
WATCH Cheerleader suing school over backlash to her kneeling protest speaks out

Tommia Dean, a former cheerleader at Kennesaw State University, is suing the school and elected officials for violating her right to protest by “taking a knee” at a football game last year.

PHOTO: Tommia Dean joined The View today to discuss why she believes officials tried to stop the protest.ABC News
Tommia Dean joined "The View" today to discuss why she believes officials tried to stop the protest.

The 20-year-old filed a complaint against former KSU President Sam Olens, Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren, and retiring state Rep. Earl Ehrhart for emotional distress over violation of her First Amendment rights.

She told “The View” that her distress manifested in a very physical way — often feeling "worried" and "constantly on edge" wondering, "OK, is something going to happen to me now?"

“You just don’t really know how to take it but it does add stress onto your life,” Dean added.

The stress exacerbated her “severe” migraines — a condition she has dealt with her whole life — forcing her to obtain a stronger medication, she said.

“I was constantly laying in bed,” she said. “I couldn’t even get out of bed because my head was hurting so bad.”

At a KSU football game on Sept. 30, 2017, Dean and four other cheerleaders chose to kneel during the national anthem. As the controversy grew, they became known as the “Kennesaw Five.”

“For me … after seeing the many killings and the many attacks against minorities by police… I didn't think that it was right for minorities to have to walk around and be terrified every single day,” Dean, who is now a junior at the school, explained. “It's a burden to have to walk around and be scared all the time.”

Dean said the purpose of the protest “became personal.”

“That could have easily been one of my brothers or one of my friend's brothers. You don't know who could be next,” she said.

PHOTO: Tommia Dean joined The View today to discuss why she believes officials tried to stop the protest.ABC News
Tommia Dean joined "The View" today to discuss why she believes officials tried to stop the protest.

She emphasized that she “never wanted to come across as disrespectful to the military. It's about standing up for police brutality against minorities.”

In fact, Dean has an uncle in the military, and she said she sees serving in the military as “honorable."

“You're standing up for your country, which is amazing… in the military, they're fighting for us to have these rights and for us to be able to peacefully protest.”

She said at first, there was little reaction to the cheerleaders’ protest: “It was pretty quiet.”

A week later, Warren told the Marietta Daily Journal that he and his wife were “shocked to see such a lack of respect for our flag, our national anthem and the men and women who serve our nation.” He added that the cheerleaders are “ill-informed,” and called for them to “learn all that the flag truly represents.”

Dean said his comments about her and her teammates were “nasty.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that before their next game, KSU decided the cheerleaders would no longer be on the field while the national anthem played.

“I realized we were going to be in the tunnel,” Dean said. “We stayed in the tunnel for a couple of games and later eventually... they let us back on the field.”

All five women who knelt tried out for the KSU cheerleading squad the following season, but only one was picked.

Dean joked that it was “just a little bit suspicious. ... We didn’t get an explanation.”

Later, she said the school reasoned that “there was a lot of competition this year and we just didn't have the skills.”

In October 2017, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained text messages between Sherriff Warren and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart that told a different story.

PHOTO: Tommia Dean joined The View today to discuss why she believes officials tried to stop the protest.ABC News
Tommia Dean joined "The View" today to discuss why she believes officials tried to stop the protest.

Sheriff Warren wrote in the text messages that KSU President Olens “assured” him the cheerleaders would not be on the field until after the anthem. Sheriff Warren called the act “Un America[n]” and described the cheerleaders as “liberal[s] that hate the USA.”

Ehrhart replied, “Thanks for your patriotism my friend.” He also seemed to confirm the two had influenced Olens’ decision: “He had to be dragged there but with you and I pushing he had no choice.”

Dean’s mother, Nichole Dean, joined her daughter on “The View” and spoke about witnessing her daughter stand up for her beliefs.

“Initially... I was very afraid for my child because Tommia is not one that speaks out all the time,” Dean said, choking back tears. “As a parent, I was extremely proud... because any time your kids do anything, you're very proud.”

Neither Ehrhart nor Warren responded to requests for comment, though a spokesman for Warren told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they would not comment on pending litigation.

A spokesperson for KSU also told “The View” they were unable to comment for similar reasons. An attorney for Ehrhart said in a statement that his client did not act with racial bias against Dean or the other cheerleaders.

Tommia Dean told “The View” that she looks forward to when people can have “an open conversation” about “taking a knee."

“We could at least agree to respect each other, maybe not understand it … because eventually if you respect each other, you will understand each other.”

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