October 5, 2017 10:35:29 AM
Area school districts are grappling with how to deal with student protests of the national anthem after members of the Starkville High School volleyball team knelt for its playing earlier this week.
Seven SHS volleyball players knelt during the national anthem on Monday before a game at New Hope High School. The action presumably showed support for the "Take an Knee" movement spreading widely through the National Football League, where players are kneeling for the anthem as a way to protest police brutality against African Americans, as well as general social injustice for people of color.
A photo of the students kneeling that was posted on Facebook drew both support and sharp criticism. The photo has since been deleted, and many of those who shared the post have also deleted it from their pages.
A black player who knelt, who The Dispatch has chosen not to identify, posted a response to the backlash following the protest. The post has since been deleted but not before The Dispatch obtained a screen shot.
"We expected it to happen but oh well," the post read. "We will stand for what we believe in. Nothing is wrong with kneeling for the National Anthem! It's not disrespecting the military or the flag! We kneeled for social injustice! We can't expect certain people to understand what we go through on a daily basis!
"Whites are still walking around saying the word 'n*****/n****' but it's such a big deal that we kneeled for the National Anthem?" she continued. "I don't get it. But I'm ... very proud of me and my teammates and everyone who supports us."
The Dispatch couldn't reach SHS Principal Sean McDonnall or head volleyball coach Xavier Tillman on Wednesday and has no information on the record as to whether the players plan to continue the protest at future games.
A teachable moment
Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District Superintendent Eddie Peasant said he is still "reviewing laws and policies" as to how the district can respond to the protests.
In a prepared statement he released Wednesday, he acknowledged the students had First Amendment rights to free speech. But he also indicated school officials were talking with the students about the impact of their decisions, as well as the fact they represent themselves, their teammates and their school during games.
"This is a national debate and a big issue in our country right now, and like most divisive issues, there are strong emotions on both sides," Peasant said in his statement. "A student who attends Starkville High School has the same civil rights as any citizen."
Peasant, though he would not say whether he agreed with the protest, told The Dispatch there was "a lot to be said" for the students paying attention to the national issue and deciding to be involved. However, he called the whole ordeal a "teachable" moment" for the students, especially those who may not have realized criticism would follow the protest.
"Sometimes, kids this age aren't aware of the ramifications of decisions like this," he said. "They need to understand the decision they are making, and whatever they decide, it needs to be something for which they are willing to deal with the consequences."
Those consequences, at least on social media, came swiftly and in bulk.
Most posts criticizing the protest dinged the students for disrespecting the flag, a particular offense to at least one Facebook user who said she had family in the military.
Another Facebook user, who is a parent of at least one SOCSD student, invoked both her patriotism and her faith in her response.
"Shame on Starkville! This should NOT happen!" the post read. "There is a time and a place for everything but during the anthem & pledge of allegiance is not it! How about saying a prayer while on those knees!!"
A male Facebook user and Starkville resident said he believed the girls who kneeled should be removed from the volleyball team.
Peasant said he was disappointed in some of the more vicious reaction toward the students, much of which has since been deleted from Facebook.
"Sometimes people get caught up in a situation like this and forget they are dealing with kids," he said.
Lowndes seeks forced participation
Jeff Smith, attorney for the Lowndes County School District, said he is working on a policy that would require everyone, including attendees of sporting events on district campuses, to stand for the national anthem.
He said he began his research after conferring with LCSD Superintendent Lynn Wright following the SHS demonstration.
"Lynn called me (Tuesday) and we talked about it," he said. "Since then, I've talked to the Mississippi School Board Association and the general counsel for the Mississippi High School Activities Association. It's really a strange situation. Individual schools have the absolute right to do what you want with your people, but when a visiting team does something like this what, if anything, can be done?"
Lowndes County School District has a policy requiring the anthem to be played prior to athletic events, but as yet has no language governing conduct during the playing of the anthem.
Smith said he has drafted a resolution explaining the importance and history of the national anthem and a policy that would require everyone present to stand for its playing.
Smith said the MHSAA has asked for a copy of that proposal when it is completed.
"I guess they figure there's no point in reinventing the wheel," Smith said.
Smith said he should have the resolution and policy ready for the school board's next meeting on Oct. 16.
"The MHSAA board is going to talk about this at their next meeting, which I think is at the end of this month or early November, but it seems to me they should have been a little more proactive, " Smith said. "All 146 districts in the state have extracurricular activities and there should be a uniform policy for this. Only the MHSAA can do that."
Smith said a 1943 Supreme Court decision -- West Virginia Board of Education vs. Barnette -- which ruled that students cannot be punished for not participating in religious or patriotic ceremonies does not apply.
"That case doesn't apply to extra-curricular activities where students give their consent to follow the policies set by their school or coach," Smith said.
Sports Reporter Brett Hudson contributed to this article.