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School rules leave charmer on the sidelines

When Amy Leo isn't cheering for Davis High School, she's teaching herself new stunts.

It's sheer bliss for the 7-year-old to sport a custom-made cheerleading outfit, clap, kick and spin on the court with the older girls.Amy, who was born with Down syndrome, easily charms spectators with her self-taught cartwheels and round-offs. Even fans from the visiting team grin and applaud.

But Amy's show has been cut.

Because of liability concerns, she cannot cheer with the squad during school athletic events under rules of the Utah High School Activities Association.

But principal Scott Greenwell and Amy's father, Dave "Skip" Leo, a Davis football coach, have put their heads together to keep Amy in the show - before games and at halftime.

Amy, who has taken dance lessons half her life, has yearned to be a cheerleader, making up her own cheers on the sidelines while her dad coached.

She got her big break last Halloween. Sporting the costume of her heroes, Amy was allowed to cheer at their sides. She was an overnight sensation. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Amy cheered full games.

A cheerleader's mother, charmed by the little girl, made the Layton Elementary first-grader an official cheerleading uniform, complete with gold trim and sparkling hair bow.

"When you have a baby born with Down syndrome, you're given absolutely no guarantee of any kind," said her dad, who is also a Kaysville Junior High math teacher. "We had to get her involved in as many activities as possible and teach her to live in the public. If she's interested in it, we flood her with it.

"It has been so much fun for us. I'm bragging, but she's so doggone cute. There's been a lot of good that's come from this."

Drum major Beth Payne agrees. During football season, Amy rushed from the stands to dance to the band's first note.

"It made the whole band feel like we were really accepted," said Payne, a senior. "She makes everyone feel that they're part of something."

Spectators compliment Amy after games. Parents of children with disabilities telephone Dave and Vicki Leo, seeking tips to help their little ones experience similar successes.

This particular success may soon be a memory. Amy won't cheer at road games any more. Next year, she probably won't cheer at all.

UHSAA bylaws state that children younger than high school age are banned from sanctioned interscholastic activity, except during halftime performances, Greenwell said.

The rule was brought up during a meeting of region principals, Greenwell said. Cheerleaders perform under the basket during games.

"Nobody (wanted) to hurt the girl's feelings or her family's or the fans' or cheerleaders' feelings, but we are in violation," Greenwell said. "She's popular with me, especially. It's such a nice thing to see her so actively and energetically involved in something. She's just a little darling."

Enforcing the rule is unpopular with the team's fans. It's harder for her parents to be cheerful about the change with the stream of phone calls questioning its logic.

"The community basically is telling me we got burned. I didn't know we got burned," Dave Leo said.

"The problem I'm having is answering calls at home from people wanting to know what's going on. I don't know what's going on," he said, adding no one has come forward as the complainant.

Some students wanted to start a petition over the issue, said Sue Sprague, a cheerleader.

"I think it's ridiculous to deprive her of this opportunity" that may not come around again, said Sprague who, sitting out of routines due to an injured back, sometimes cradles Amy in her lap. "It hurts me to see Amy hurt like that. I never could have told her."

Breaking the news wasn't easy. The confused child's eyes welled with tears when her parents escorted her to the bleachers.

"She was mad at Dave and I. She thought it was us not letting her go out there," Vicki Leo said. "It just broke my heart."

The cheerleading squad gave her the official team necklace - a silver chain and megaphone charm - to ease her sorrows. On Friday, Amy's parents brought a bag of gummy bears and a bottle of Diet Coke to bribe her to the stands.

At game time, Amy climbed up two benches, wiped her brow and sighed. Munching a gummy bear, she studied her 19 "teammates," occasionally moving her arm or clapping, once standing on the bleachers.

Soon, the temptation became unbearable, and she told Mom she was ready to cheer. Luckily, a time-out intercepted what could have been tears.

"I think it's a crying shame to take away the little happiness it gives her," said Leslie Allen, whose husband is a school police officer. "Why can't she be out there the whole time?"

A rule is a rule, Dave Leo said. He just hopes it's enforced across the board.

"I've been in the schools 23 years. I know you've got to cover your backside. And we've been treated like kings and queens here," he said.

He also hopes bitterness won't overshadow his daughter's experience.

"I would hope (people) would look out there and see my daughter and say, `Hey, everyone can do something. Everyone can be successful at something, no matter what their limits are.' And I don't even know what this little girl's limits are.

"I'm the happiest dad around because I get to go watch her cheer tonight."