Did a high school dance coach, choreographer, educators and eventually other parents knowingly discriminate against a member of the Blue Valley Northwest dance team?
Mike and Melodie Sturdivant say since their daughter Camille was two years old, all she wanted to do was dance. From tapping to “A Spoonful of Sugar” in a frilly, hot pink costume when she was five to going to competitions, dance was their child’s happy place. Their faces light up when they talk about their daughter’s passion for performing and how it was her dream to be on her high school’s dance team. But then, these parents say, something went terribly wrong their daughter’s junior year on the Blue Valley Northwest Dazzler Dance Team. They believe their child became the victim of rampant racism.
When 14-year-old Camille Sturdivant, a soon-to-be freshman, tried out for her high school dance team back in the spring of 2014, she had high hopes. But when no incoming freshman made the team, her parents were surprised. Looking back, Melodie Sturdivant, a former intensive care unit nurse and now stay-at-home mom, says it was a red flag, especially considering that, in the four previous years, an average of five freshmen made the team each year.
“You would be hard-pressed to find any high school sport where they don’t take freshmen,” Melodie Sturdivant says.
Her husband, Mike Sturdivant, who works in commercial real estate, adds: “That raised an eyebrow, and I should have questioned the leadership there from the beginning. If you’re a program of developing people and developing dancers, how do you skip a year?”
Present at those auditions were graduating seniors and dance team members Carley Fine and Kevin Murakami. A mere two years later, both of these now-Blue Valley Northwest alums came back to make an impact on Camille Sturdivant’s life in ways her parents never could have imagined.
Camille tried out for the dance team again the next year and made it. Her sophomore year was full of school performances and even a national competition. It wasn’t until her junior year, in the summer of 2016, that things greatly changed, Melodie Sturdivant says.
The Dazzlers got two new coaches: Jenni Waters and former Dazzler Fine. Neither of these women was a teacher at any Blue Valley school, nor did either have an education degree. Waters was a college graduate, but Fine was only two years removed from graduating from BVNW and wasn’t attending a university. Instead, she was working at Perception Dance Company. As of January 8, 2019, Fine’s Facebook page lists her as the dance company’s owner, and the Perception website lists her as the studio director.
(Todd White, the superintendent of the Blue Valley School District, says hiring someone who is so young, has fewer credentials than are required of a district substitute teacher and doesn’t have any education beyond high school to act as a coach is permissible because finding coaches is like “looking for a needle in a stack of needles.” He says they are “hard to find, attract and retain.”)
For the Sturdivants, having a coach who was the girls’ peer was a little disconcerting. Fine also had a sister on the team. The Sturdivants say that in early June of that year, Fine announced that, since she and Waters didn’t get to pick the team (tryouts had been held earlier in the spring), auditions would be held for every dance performance. This is not unheard of but did deviate from previous protocol. What was vastly different, the Sturdivants (and some previous dance moms who had daughters on the team at that time) say, is that Fine encouraged the dancers to come to her studio and pay for private lessons or take classes.
“I heard this, and I’m thinking, ‘You can’t do that,’” Melodie Sturdivant says. “You can’t ask girls to come pay you money to help them get into a dance.” Fine also changed the standard operating procedure of practicing at a Blue Valley school to having each dance team member pay a fee to practice at Perception Dance.
Before the start of the school year, the dancers had auditioned to see who would be selected for a routine that would be performed at a national competition eight months away. Murakami, a former Dazzler and, at that time, a student at Pace University in New York, was choreographing the piece with Fine. According to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in December by Camille Sturdivant, Fine and Murakami pulled then-16-year-old Camille aside, and Murakami told her she was being removed from the dance because “her skin was too dark, and the audience would look at her and not the other dancers.” She was also told that her “skin color clashed with the costumes.”
Camille’s parents were livid. “Our daughter came home and was a mess,” Melodie Sturdivant says. “She didn’t even know how horribly wrong that was because she’s never been told anything like that. We were stunned.”
Professionals in the dance industry say eliminating a performer because of skin color is not done for any reason, especially not artistic reasons. Curtis Smith, the owner of the Pulse Performing Arts Center for 13 years and a nationally-recognized dance instructor for almost two decades who choreographs high school dance team routines, says, “From a dance perspective, you don’t even think about the color of a person’s skin. Just like you don’t consider hair color.”
“Dance is colorblind. What you’re looking at is movement and performance quality and technical proficiency. Color? Never.” -Curtis Smith, Owner of the Pulse Performing Arts Center
(435 made repeated interview requests of Fine and Murakami. Neither party responded.)
By this time, the Sturdivants were growing concerned about just what was happening on the dance team. In September, they requested an in-person meeting with BVNW principal Amy Murphy Pressly. At the meeting, which included BVNW associate principal Tyler Alexander, the Sturdivants say they told the principal what Murakami — whom the school was paying to choreograph — said about their daughter’s skin color. They also discussed their child’s grades in the class and the dance team’s finances. (Being on dance team counts as an elective, so grades are given for the class and counted as part of a student’s overall GPA.)
Melodie Sturdivant says the principal’s sole response to the skin color comment was that “Carley is allowed to pick who she wants in her own dance.” It was a weird, out-of-body experience, Melodie Sturdivant shares. “You want to make a scene, jump on a table, but you know the people involved won’t get it.”
Grades were also an issue for the parents. There wasn’t a syllabus, Mike Sturdivant says, and the girls didn’t know what, exactly, they were being graded on. “You’ve got Carley Fine running this program and handing out grades, and she’s not even college educated,” he says. “She shouldn’t be giving the grades. She’s still the assistant, and she’s running the program.”
This led to their next area of concern: the Dazzler finances. Melodie Sturdivant says she repeatedly requested an itemized report from the school. “I wanted to know where all the money was going,” she says. “The girls were constantly fundraising, and yet the parents were writing checks all the time.”
(The dance team’s school account from July 2016 to June 2017 shows the Dazzler team’s fundraising combined with money the parents paid in exceeded $38,000.)
The Sturdivants say they walked out of the meeting feeling worse than when they went in. But they hoped that, behind the scenes, something would be done. “We tried to stay positive,” Melodie Sturdivant says.
When school started, things didn’t get any better. In the summer, when Camille was allegedly told she was being pulled from the nationals dance based on her skin color, she was informed that she would be the head alternate and would be put back in the dance if anyone dropped out or got hurt. So when a girl who was in the dance changed schools, Camille was eager to step up, but she was told by the head coach that she would have to try out — again.
Mike Sturdivant was not having it. “We felt it was systematic, that it was absolutely harassment,” he says. “If you look at it a different way and say you’ve done all the things we told you to do to get the job, and then we offer you the job, but we’re going to make you keep jumping through additional hoops so it never happens.”
The parents communicated their disbelief to the principal and the coaches, but tryouts were still held with the three other Dazzlers who were cut from the routine. Eventually, Camille was selected to be in the dance. Three months later, Carley Fine was announced as the interim Dazzler head coach. By April, she was promoted to head coach for the 2017-18 school year. During this time, the Sturdivants say Fine told Camille that her solo was being pulled from the spring show, which is the culmination and celebration of the team’s season.
As their daughter’s senior year began, the Sturdivants’ profound desire for their child’s final year on the dance team to be drama-free didn’t materialize. They say instead it was a series of degradations, citing that the coach didn’t do anything for Camille’s senior recognition during the football or basketball seasons. (Senior recognition is a school tradition where, during specified athletic events, 12th-graders participating in sports programs or activities are honored.)
“If it wasn’t for one of her media teachers working in the football broadcast booth during senior night, she would have been totally left out,” Melodie Sturdivant says. “That teacher hustled and put together something so our daughter would be recognized.”
It was the same story for senior night at the boys’ varsity basketball game, Melodie Sturdivant claims. “You have the cheer coach handing out roses to the seniors, taking pictures, and there’s our daughter, the only senior on the dance team, getting no recognition from her coach,” she says. “It was like she didn’t exist.”
But the Sturdivants say they earnestly tried to protect their daughter from Fine’s negativity.
“I knew in my heart she (Fine) was prejudiced against my daughter, but I didn’t want my daughter to think that people would not like her because she was black,” Melodie Sturdivant says. “I didn’t want to poison her. I’m not going to allow that to be in her head.”
As the family entered the final month of Camille’s high school journey, they were on a high. Camille had recently tried out for and made a highly competitive and nationally ranked collegiate dance team. But their joy would be short lived. What happened next left them equal parts outraged and devastated.
On May 1, during a dance team practice for the spring show, Fine gave Camille her phone so she could play music for the freshman performers. While holding the phone, Camille saw a text between Fine and Murakami discussing Camille making the University of Missouri Golden Girl dance team.
Camille took a picture of the text with her phone and sent it to her parents. Her mother was distraught for her child. “What hurt me the most was that she (Fine) is sick to her stomach that my daughter made the team,” Melodie Sturdivant says. “What kind of hatred do you have that you’re sick to your stomach that she achieved her dream?”
Mike Sturdivant was incensed. “This was the only text message we saw, but how deep it runs, we have no idea,” he says.
The Sturdivants contacted the school principal via email, attached the screen shot of the text and requested immediate action, even suggesting that they might share the text on social media. The principal responded and asked them not to do anything on social media, the Sturdivants say. The next day, Fine was terminated, determined to be ineligible for any future employment by the Blue Valley School District and was told she could not be on school grounds or at any school-sponsored Dazzler event.
An email sent to the parents about the firing stated that “The District expects staff to treat all students with respect at all times, and any report that this expectation has not been fulfilled is taken very seriously.”
Superintendent White says his feelings when he saw the text were ones of intense disappointment.
The next day was the spring show. Beforehand, there was a team dinner for the dancers and their parents hosted by a Dazzler family. The Sturdivants say they were not notified of nor invited to the dinner. But Fine was, and she attended.
That evening, the Sturdivants claim the principal assured them that she, along with other BVNW educators, would be backstage to make sure Camille felt safe. But by the time the curtain rose on the spring show, the Sturdivants say their child was feeling uneasy. Fine’s mother was also backstage, and Camille texted her mother with concerns.
The next day was the final spring show. All the dancers, except Camille and the other Dazzler of color (who was only on the team for one year and has since moved out-of-state), were wearing purple ribbons with the initials C.F. on them for Carley Fine. The ribbons were reportedly made by a dance team mom in support of Fine. After the final performance, Melodie Sturdivant says a team picture was taken of only the dancers with ribbons.
“That’s when my heart broke,” Melodie Sturdivant says. “My daughter was literally on the margins.”
What was even worse, Mike Sturdivant says, was that some of the girls posted the ribbon picture on social media and said that Fine “showed them how to work through adversity.”
“It was a slap in the face,” Melodie Sturdivant says. “In their mind, Carley was the victim, yet they all knew what she did.”
Mike Sturdivant adds: “My daughter did that show under duress, segregation, finger-pointing and eye-rolling, and nobody in the audience could tell what she was going through. She was a professional.”
Both parents also wondered where the principal was. According to the Sturdivants, she was supposed to be backstage both nights of the spring show to look after their child. “The principal allowed those ribbons backstage,” Mike Sturdivant says. “She allowed that retaliation. How could she not see those ribbons and ask why the girls were wearing them?”
Due to Fine’s firing, the Sturdivants say the principal canceled the team banquet. But unbeknownst to the Sturdivants, another team banquet had been planned at the Country Club Plaza. Camille, the only senior on the team, was again not invited. Carley Fine was, and pictures were posted on social media.
Attending this “team” banquet and at the dinner before the spring show was Katie Porter, a teacher in the Blue Valley School District who had a daughter on the dance team. The Sturdivants were curious why a school district employee would be in attendance at two Dazzler events with Fine, a terminated employee. This teacher also posted pictures of least one of the events on her social media.
Mike Sturdivant says he and his wife posed a host of questions to the principal regarding these events: Why wasn’t disciplinary action taken against the dancers who not only wore the ribbons but also attended events with the fired coach? Why was a Blue Valley teacher taking part in dance team events, albeit off school property, that, if not against the district’s implied mandate, were against good sense?
“The girls go directly against a directive from the principal, and what they did was inflammatory,” Mike Sturdivant says. “They should have been suspended. These are students in your school, and they are disobeying a direct order. Meanwhile, there’s a district employee attending all these events, and nothing happens, and Carley Fine is essentially thumbing her nose at the district.”
The district’s response was less than satisfactory to the Sturdivants. They say the principal told them the district has no control over what happens off school property. Superintendent White told 435 that the issue of students wearing the ribbons was handled at the “building level.” He also thinks that the mothers of the dancers might have had more to do with the ribbons than the girls. “I worry about the kids,” he says. “Do the parents really think that this is what their kids wanted to do?”
In mid-May, the Sturdivants were encouraged to learn that the Blue Valley School District was doing an internal Title VI investigation. (Title VI is part of the Civil Rights Act, which states that “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”) That feeling was short-lived. The Sturdivants say they were interviewed but felt like the school’s legal counsel was minimizing the incidents.
“It was a farce,” Mike Sturdivant says. “The attorney was making excuses for what happened when there were multiple accounts of retaliation and discrimination.”
The couple say they weren’t surprised when they found out the district concluded it had not violated the Title VI act. What did result from the investigation was that Carley Fine was still no longer eligible for employment in the district, could not attend any Dazzler dance team events and was not allowed on school property.
That was a huge relief. The last thing the Sturdivants say they ever wanted to do was see Carley Fine again. And yet, less than a month later, she showed up at a BVNW football game. The Sturdivants were there to watch their son play. “I couldn’t believe it,” Melodie Sturdivant says. “There she was.”
The Sturdivants, by that time, had an attorney, who found out that the school district had granted Carley Fine an exception to watch her sister perform with the Dazzlers as long as she “didn’t cause a disruption.”
Melodie Sturdivant was incredulous. “It’s like what happened to our daughter didn’t matter,” she says. “What about my right to watch my child without seeing Carley Fine? What about my daughter’s right to see her brother play football without seeing Carley Fine? Right now, our son isn’t playing high school basketball because we don’t want to subject our family to her. At what point does the district start taking racism seriously?”
In December, Camille Sturdivant filed a civil rights lawsuit against Carley Fine, the Blue Valley School District, BVNW principal Amy Murphy Pressly and district teacher Katie Porter.
The Sturdivants’ lawyer, Lynne Bratcher, says: “We’re hoping to educate the school district and the parents that racism isn’t just a little bad. They all crossed the line, and what it does is foster further racism and make the school part of a racist undertaking. None of this is acceptable.”
The Sturdivants say their motivation is not to seek revenge but to educate and reform. Mike Sturdivant gets emotional saying, as a dad, he doesn’t want any other child to have go through what his daughter did. “It’s time for things to change,” he says. “Right now.”
▸In January, the Blue Valley School District suspended the dance program at BVNW. In a statement, White said the action was taken “because the district determined that the Blue Valley Northwest Dazzler Dance Program has not met district expectations. The District suspended the program while efforts are being made to rebuild it into a positive, healthy experience for our students.”
▸The Blue Valley School District also has started unconscious bias training for its administrators and coaches. “Our issue is making sure we eradicate this,” White says. Changes have also been made in the district’s employment practices in regards to hiring coaches.
▸Carley Fine formed her own high school dance team and named it the Dazzler All Stars. On her personal Facebook page (as of press time), Carley Fine still lists herself as the “Dance team coach at Blue Valley Northwest High School.”