TRUMBULL — The high school cheerleading community is rallying behind its former coach who says she was forced to resign last month.

Denise Patton, who had been the Trumbull High School cheerleading coach since 2018, said she was “completely blind-sided” when she was called into a meeting on Sept. 23.

Patton claims she was told to resign or she would be fired for violating two school district policies.

Questions to district officials regarding Patton’s resignation were referred to Superintendent Martin Semmel, who has not responded to requests for comment.

According to Patton, who said she has tried to retract her resignation, she was accused of failing to maintain a list of students who signed the school district’s hazing policy, and conducting fundraising drives without submitting the required approval form.

The hazing policy requires coaches to maintain their team members’ signatures for one year. Patton said she reviewed the policy with the team in May 2019, so she should not have been required to still have the signatures when she was confronted last month. Patton said she did not review the policy with her team in 2020 because the spring season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and tryouts had not yet been held for the fall.

The policy, adopted in 2010, defines hazing as “any activity, which recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student for the purpose of initiation into, admission into or affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in, any organization sanctioned or authorized by the Board of Education.”

Patton claims she was not aware of the fundraiser approval requirement until February when she received an email from Athletic Director Michael King. In the Feb. 4 email, obtained by Hearst Connecticut Media, King said all fundraisers need to be approved by him, Assistant Superintendent Jonathan Budd, Trumbull High Principal Marc Guarino and Dean of Students Anthony Pijar.

Patton said the team had already raised more than $20,000 during her tenure when she was alerted to the policy. The Board of Education’s fundraising policy, which King referred to in the email and reminded coaches they are expected to understand, appears to date back to at least 2006.

“Everyone was aware that we were fundraising,” Patton said. “The mother of one of the team members works in the athletic department. Girls were going into their offices selling popcorn or whatever else we were doing. It certainly wasn’t a secret.”

At the end of the meeting, Patton said she signed a one-sentence statement affirming her resignation effective immediately. King then informed the team of her resignation. Moments later, Patton’s phone started ringing.

“We were all crying on the phone, hysterical,” Patton said. “They knew I wouldn’t walk out on them.”

More than 1,000 people have since signed an online petition calling for Patton to be reinstated.

Particularly gratifying, Patton said, were the comments left on the petition by the cheerleaders, who had only worked with her for less than two full seasons.

Patton, a Milford resident who has coached at Sacred Heart University and in youth leagues in Connecticut, was hired as the Trumbull High School cheerleading team’s part-time choreographer in October 2018, and was elevated to head coach the following month.

“I am not just a cheer coach, I don't teach girls how to yell ‘rah rah’ and hold pom poms,” Patton wrote on the petition as she thanked everyone for their support. “I am a leader, a mentor, a counselor, a teacher, a doctor, a second mom, and a community leader.”

deng@trumbulltimes.com