LUMBERTON — After dozens of NFL players last weekend took a knee during the playing of the national anthem in protest, the superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County stood up to make sure any local protest doesn’t become a bigger problem.
Shanita Wooten last week reminded school administrators that students cannot be forced to stand during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Wooten told The Robesonian that a memo she sent out to principals was not in response to a protest or because she had become aware of one that was planned, but was because of an inquiry from the system’s athletics director.
Wooten pointed out that a student’s right to stay seated for the anthem has been upheld by the Supreme Court, and her opinion is not important.
“While I have my personal and political views on the causes of recent protests, I do not let it affect my job as an administrator,” Wooten said.
The Robesonian contacted school officials after being provided a copy of the memo and receiving several phone calls from parents concerned about the policy.
The memo read in part: “Courts have held that schools cannot compel students to participate in patriotic rituals like standing for the national anthem or saying the ‘Pledge of Allegiance.’ Punishing students for such peaceful acts of protests is a violation of their rights.”
Jeff Fipps, the county’s athletics director, said the issue was raised last week during a meeting of regional athletics directors. He said he and Wooten “both sat down and discussed letting the athletics directors and coaches know what the policy was. … We were trying to be proactive in case there were students that wanted to protest the anthem.”
He said the conversation was simply a practical approach to what has become an emotional issue.
“There were no personal feelings discussed between the both of us being administrators, no thoughts on where we were going to prevent or support any protests,” Fipps said. “We just wanted to make sure that the school administrators knew the policy and what it was about.”
The Supreme Court settled the matter in 1943 in the case of the West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. The court ruled then that public schools cannot compel Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the flag during the “Pledge of Allegiance,” saying that amounted to “compelled speech,” which is in violation of the First Amendment, which provides freedom of speech.
”The Public Schools of Robeson County does incorporate citizenship into curriculum,” Wooten said. “The curriculum must ensure, however, that no student will be compelled to or feel coerced to participate in rituals or programs of a patriotic nature.”
The situation is addressed in the school system’s Policy Code 4315, which reads: “Students also are entitled to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech as a part of a stimulating, inviting educational environment. A student’s right to free speech will not be infringed upon; however, school officials may place reasonable, constitutional restrictions on time, place and manner in order to preserve a safe, orderly environment.”
The Robesonian contacted a few members of the Board of Education, but none wanted to speak on the record about the situation.
“As long as our students respectfully show their beliefs, we will not initiate disciplinary action if a student protests during the national anthem,” Wooten said. “As an educator, I believe expression is important, and there is a very fine line public schools can walk on when telling students what they can and cannot do.”
The NFL protests last week followed a tweet by President Trump encouraging owners to fire players who knelled during the playing of the national anthem. That prompted a variety of actions, with more players joining the protest that had included fewer than a dozen players previously, and some teams deciding to stay in the lockerroom during the anthem’s playing.
Colin Kaepernick, who at that time was a backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers but is now out of the NFL, sparked the protests when he became the first to kneel during the anthem during the 2016 season. He said he was protesting what he saw as police brutality toward blacks, including the shooting of unarmed black teenagers.
Public reaction has been split on the protests, with some recognizing the players’ right to do so and others calling for national boycotts of the NFL.
Editor Donnie Douglas can be reached at 910-416-4659. Staff writer Jonathan Bym contributed to this report.