So far this fall, protests of social injustice haven’t reached area high school football fields. Andy Lundberg Special to The Star
So far this fall, protests of social injustice haven’t reached area high school football fields. Andy Lundberg Special to The Star

High School Sports

KC-area high schools won’t take ‘heavy hand’ if students take knee during anthem

By Maria Torres And and Sam McDowell

September 28, 2017 05:50 PM

President Donald Trump’s call for NFL owners to “fire” players who kneel during the national anthem sparked a movement over the weekend, with players, owners and coaches across several sports kneeling, locking arms or skipping the anthem altogether.

The mounting demonstrations have prompted some high schools to ponder: What if our athletes are next?

Public schools in the Kansas City area have not implemented policies involving punishment for student-athletes who choose not to stand for the national anthem. But that’s not the case everywhere.

The Bossier Parish school board in Louisiana, for instance, received attention Thursday when Parkway High decided to require its student-athletes to “stand in a respectful manner” for the national anthem or risk removal from the team. The information came from a letter that circulated Twitter.

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Louisiana high school principal bans #TakeAKnee at football games - egregious violation of the 1st am, per West Virginia v Barnette (1943)

— Steven Mazie (@stevenmazie) September 28, 2017

As #TakeAKnee trends throughout the United States — the Jackson, Miss., chapter of the NAACP even planned to ask high school and college players to take part, according to WAPT News — officials here have adopted a hands-off approach.

The Missouri State High Schools Activities Association has no policy dictating behavior during the anthem on the books, and most football teams remain in the locker room during the anthem anyway, even at the state championship — though not as a sign of protest. The Kansas State High School Activities Association also does not plan to adopt a state-wide policy, instead leaving decisions on protocol to individual districts.

“It’s not our place to do that,” KSHSAA executive director Gary Musselman said. “It involves First Amendment rights for children. We don’t feel it’s our place to try to dictate a policy.”

“The school has the autonomy to set their own policy and procedures on what their students do,” MSHSAA communications director Jason West said.

Schools and district offices reached by The Star on Thursday offered a similar approach.

“We haven’t seen anything thus far this year, but we honor a student’s right to express him or herself,” said Natalie Allen, the Kansas City Public Schools chief of staff of communications. “Students are allowed to kneel if they feel inclined to.”

Mill Valley athletics director Jerald VanRheen said students “have the choice to opt out with no repercussion.”

Leavenworth High, which is about 15 minutes south of Fort Leavenworth, “celebrates the diversity of our student population and their freedom of expression” and will not discipline students for choosing not to stand.

“Our proximity to Fort Leavenworth offers our students a unique perspective to have frequent interactions with the brave men and women who served, or are actively serving, to protect that freedom,” athletics director James Vanek wrote The Star in an email.

Courts historically have ruled against schools forcing students into acts of patriotism. An Education Week blog published Sunday used the 1943 case of West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette as example. In that case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a school would violate free-speech rights by forcing a student to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Park Hill School District has referenced that law, stating it would treat the national anthem in the same manner. Students are not required to participate in Lee’s Summit or Blue Springs, either, officials from their districts told The Star.

But they are encouraged to discuss reasons they might choose to participate in the protest at schools in the KCK Public Schools district.

“We try to communicate with kids through coaches and athletic directors about our expectations,” said Walter Thompson, KCK district athletic director. “We don’t want to appear to have a heavy hand. ... We have to have a conversation.”

On the other hand, extracurricular activities might not necessarily fall under the same regulations.

“I have discussed this with a few others, and I am honestly not sure what the appropriate school response would be,” Paola principal Jeff Hines said. “Schools are in a difficult position and must follow case law established in previous court decisions regarding freedom of speech rights for students.

“I am curious if this form of protest leads to a new test for this right. Participating in sports is considered extracurricular and not a part of a free and appropriate education, which in some district’s mind may give schools more freedom to limit this right. But ultimately courts will probably weigh in at some point.”