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Post & Courier (Charleston, SC)
CONWAY - Like many college students, she needed cash.
"I dropped a summer class and I guess I'm not getting the money back," the young woman texted a friend. "My dad's going to killllll me.
"I just need that easy money, LOL."
How she hoped to do that has brought national notoriety to Coastal Carolina University and its cheerleading squad. Her messages came to light recently amid a police investigation of the team members, some of whom were paid to go on dates with men they called "sugar daddies."
Cheerleaders would get between $100 and $1,500 a pop. Shopping sprees were sometimes thrown in, as long as the cheerleaders modeled their new clothes.
Laid out in an anonymous letter from a "concerned parent," those accusations and suggestions of prostitution, wild partying and drug use prompted the squad's suspension late last month. The swift action fell in line with the university's handling of other allegations of institutional misconduct in school groups.
But team members and their attorney called the allegations outlandish and criticized the school's response as hasty. The escort service was legal, they added. Some drew comparisons to the Duke University lacrosse team that was suspended a decade ago over false rape charges.
Text messages and interviews with current and former cheerleaders helped university police uncover the money-making effort. At least 11 of them knew about the service, according to an investigative report obtained through a S.C. Freedom of Information Act request. At least four took part.
The documentation gave no evidence of the more salacious claims. The students insisted that no sexual acts occurred, and the paperwork does not indicate whether they represented themselves as Coastal Carolina cheerleaders. It's also unclear whether younger squad members were pressured to take part, an allegation that posed hazing concerns.
About 10,000 students, mostly from the Palmetto State, attend the liberal arts school 10 miles from the beach. Tuition and housing runs in-state students about $20,000 annually.
Tucked away in the small city of Conway, Coastal didn't have much of a national profile until recently. That changed when its Chanticleers baseball team won the College World Series last year, and alum Dustin Johnson became the PGA Tour's top golfer in February. Johnson often wears teal, the primary school color.
As the recent allegations revealed, Coastal isn't immune to the risky behavior creeping onto campuses nationwide. Escort websites have come into favor among college students with bills to pay. A magazine four years ago reported that nearly 50 percent of one site's users looking to be paid for dates were students.
As colleges nationwide often struggle to deal with allegations of risky or criminal behavior, including sex assaults, advocates and student conduct experts said a prompt suspension of the Coastal cheerleaders might have been appropriate until investigators can pin down the details.
"If a parent is filing a complaint, there's probably a good reason," said Susan Lipkins, a New York psychologist and author of "Preventing Hazing." "It's probably deeper and more complicated than anyone has acknowledged so far. And when you have that potential dangerous activity, you have to stop it immediately."
But to an attorney for five cheerleaders, the university's handling of the episode and its release of unsubstantiated assertions unfairly painted team members as prostitutes.
The lawyer, Amy Lawrence of Myrtle Beach, and the cheerleaders questioned whether male athletes benefit from a double standard while women are punished. She cited various criminal accusations over the years at Coastal that didn't prompt a team's suspension.
"This goes to the heart of what is wrong with the university and its inadequate treatment of women," Lawrence said in a statement. "A lot of really wonderful, kind, smart women have been smeared."
This has been an issue elsewhere as well. At Baylor University, for example, 31 football players were said to have committed 52 rapes but stayed on the field, a lawsuit alleged earlier this year.
Coastal officials pointed to rules governing the cheerleading team, which is considered an athletics program but not an official sport. Cheerleaders, who don't get paid for their efforts, are university ambassadors, the policies state, and breaking the regulations can bring an unexplained dismissal.
"Everyone knows you are a cheerleader," they explain. "Wear the hat at all times."
Mona Prufer, a university spokeswoman, said the school was still investigating.
"The university ... has an interest in upholding its educational mission and its code of ethical conduct," she said.
Last week, students sauntered between classes on the 600-acre campus, passing gurgling fountains, blooming flowers, chirping birds and brick buildings.
Many fretted more about surviving the final month of coursework than about the cheerleaders' plight. At the student union - its main hall lined with banners emblazoned with the words tradition, integrity and excellence - participants in a research competition stood next to posters on topics like microplastics in the ocean and the ethics of declawing cats.
Many students expressed skepticism of the allegations.
"They're cheerleaders. They're just wilder," junior Lontay Greene said. "But it's kind of sad to make them all look bad for something they're not all doing."
Greene wondered if the same fate would befall a national title-holding varsity squad.
"If the baseball team burned down a church," he said jokingly, "they'd be on the field the next day."
'Shrug it off'
The parent's March 8 letter was sent to the university's president, David DeCenzo, insisting on punishment for long-standing problems.
"The CCU cheerleaders should be representing your university in a positive way," it stated. "They should feel honored."
But the letter alleged that some were paying other students to do their homework, using phony identification to get alcohol, buying drinks for underage cheerleaders, posting half-naked pictures on social media and working at strip clubs.
They tried to recruit other cheerleaders to become strippers or escorts by "flaunting" their cash proceeds and gifts.
In the weeks after a March 13 meeting between school officials and cheerleading coaches, a campus Department of Public Safety investigator deemed some allegations to be true.
The cheerleaders, the report stated, said they used fictitious names to set up dates through SeekingArrangement.com. The website comes with a smartphone application and boasts 10 million members, including "sugar babies" looking to be pampered with fine dinners and exotic trips as their sponsors - "daddies" and "mammas" - enjoy the "beautiful" company.
But sex wasn't part of the deal, the report stated.
"I know everyone knows and they just shrug if off," a former cheerleader said in text gathered during the probe. "For people who think very highly of themselves, have more self-respect."
'We get a rush'
Two women reported getting $100 for dates.
One worked as a "shot girl" at Thee DollHouse, a Myrtle Beach strip club, and was offered $800 to escort someone to a steakhouse.
Two cheerleaders drove to North Carolina, each getting $1,500 for a rendezvous. An earlier shopping excursion with the same man netted one of the women shoes, clothes and a Michael Kors purse.
"They spent the night," the report stated, "but there was nothing sexual."
In arranging an August meeting, one woman told another that a client would give them $500.
"He was like ... 'I'll give you money on top of that (for shopping) but only if you model what you buy,'" a text said. "And I was like, 'Yeah, that's cool.'"
But the women also talked about getting marijuana from the man and selling it for $275 an ounce.
"Hell yeah," one texted.
Participants in a text conversation spoke of getting "sugar daddies lined up" last July.
But some called the scheme "scary.""It's gross," one said, "because I wonder if my dad does this kind of stuff."
The money was good, though.
"We get a rush," one said.
Word of the school's probe prompted a group text message March 28 in which cheerleaders were urged to delete escort applications from their cellphones and quit their strip club jobs.
"If they find out we are in violation," it said, "they will be kicking people off."
That came the next day. Athletics officials went to a practice and announced the indefinite suspension, a week before a national competition, a cheerleader said on Facebook. The team's webpage was taken down.
"This is a very difficult time for my teammates and I," she said, "as we've worked so hard to overcome the many (obstacles) the university has thrown at us."
The university has similarly handled hazing accusations against fraternities. It suspended three in 2014 over what it called "questionable" initiation procedures. Officials said they hoped to quickly stop such activity before completing an investigation.
Jill Creighton, president of the Association of Student Conduct Administration, said different schools handle such probes differently. Some, seeking to halt potentially dangerous behavior, might suspend a group without a probe's findings.
Some govern conduct only on campus while others "say you're a student no matter where you are," Creighton said.
"Codes of conduct ... set the rules of behavior for the community," she said. "They're trying to balance proactive education with the proper response."
'Hope it's not true'
On a recent day, a campus tour guide led a group past the Edward Singleton Building, which houses Coastal's administration.
"Most students never go in there unless they did something super-good or something that's not so good," she said. "Let's hope if you go in there, it's for something super-good, OK?"
Prospective students chuckled.
Cooper McCoy caught a shuttle bus nearby. The education major said the university had been trying to dispel a stigma as a party school near the beach.
"Then this allegation comes out," he said. "I hope it's not true."
Many students envisioned cheerleaders, like other college-goers, doing whatever they can to scrape by.
Jessica Bradwell, a sophomore, chatted with friends near the Road Rooster, a food truck that sells shrimp stir fry for $6.79.
"I know some people here who don't have enough money to buy meals," she said.
On a bridge to the business school, freshman Teryn Jenkins gazed at the turtles flapping in the water below.
"You're paying a lot to go to college," he said. "You gotta do what you gotta do."
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