A group of students and parents in Southern California gathered on Wednesday to support a popular gay high school cheer and stunt coach who was fired without explanation last month, and the former coach filed a lawsuit claiming he was unlawfully terminated because he is gay.
Michael Henderson had been the head coach of the Murrieta Valley High School's cheer and stunt program for three years, and his squad had just come off a 4th place finish at the 2021 National Cheerleading Championship in April and a 6th place finish the year before. But according to a report in the Patch, he was fired last month after an anonymous letter launched an investigation into his coaching style.
"The anonymous letter was sent to MVUSD [Murrieta Valley Unified School District] by what is believed to be a couple of disgruntled cheer parents who were angry with their child's position or participation level in the team," Terry Davis, Henderson’s attorney, told the Patch.
Henderson said he was "shocked" at his dismissal, all the more so because earlier that month he had received a "glowing" evaluation from principal Ryan Tukua and athletic director Darin Mott.
"There was no hint that anything was wrong," Henderson told the Patch.
Henderson said he never saw the letter, was never interviewed, and was never given the chance to respond. His lawyer contends the investigation was driven by Paul Diffley, a member of the MVUSD board of trustees and devout Mormon, who reportedly asked parents about Henderson’s sexual orientation.
Davis said Diffley "made calls to several unnamed sources impeding due process of the investigation" and that "one question related to his sexual orientation raised red flags leading many to believe that it was a substantial factor in the district's decision to terminate" his client’s employment.
The president of the MVHS cheer booster club and a parent of a cheerleader on the squad, Kim Altenhofel, told the Patch she was contacted twice by the principal Tukua and once more by Diffley, asking questions about allegations relating to verbal and mental abuse by Henderson. She said she never saw any abusive behavior from Henderson and went on to say the squad was distraught over his abrupt dismissal.
"The kids loved him," she said.
"He always wants the best for you," said MVHS senior and cheer team member Kendell Winters.
"Coach Mike had high expectations, but I want that for my kids," said Kendell’s father, Rick Winters. "That is real life."
Winters went on to note Henderson expected his athletes to be students first, maintaining good grades to participate in events with the team.
The Patch reached out to multiple team members and parents, but could not find one person who witnessed behavior they would characterize as abusive.
In addition to the protest on Wednesday, students and parents packed a school board meeting on June 17 to show their support for Coach Henderson, but the board shut down their voices saying the item wasn’t on the agenda and, therefore, not open for comment. The school district declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing confidentiality rules.
When contacted by the Patch, MVUSD spokesperson Monica Gutierrez declined to comment on the case, citing state and local privacy laws.
Henderson still continues to coach students through the Prime Cheer & Stunt in nearby Corona, California, but his students are angry and upset.
"They are heartbroken," said Altenhofel.