NEW LONDON — On Aug. 30, a group of cheerleaders unfurled a large “Trump 2020: Make America Great Again” flag at a North Stanly High School football game and posed for pictures. The theme for the game was “America Day,” and many students had patriotic themed clothing and signs. After attention was brought to the incident, the cheerleaders were given a probation for the rest of the season by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.
The controversy was due to “Policy 2055, section C, number 4” of the district’s rules, which deals with “display of non-school materials” and states that political campaign materials cannot be displayed.
With thousands of policies, superintendent of Stanly County Schools Dr. Jeff James told Stanly County Journal, it was nearly impossible to apply everything perfectly in the moment. When they became aware of it, the incident had already occurred, and some students, teachers and community members were discussing it on social media.
Initially, NCHSAA said they were considering suspending the students in the picture from participating in athletic events and levying a fine against the school. But James said the district requested leniency based on the fact that it was a first offense. The NCHSAA agreed to instead put the students on probation for the remainder of the season.
“NCHSAA probation, in and of itself, is not a punishment,” NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker said in a statement to SCJ. “It serves as a notice of behavior or action that is against NCHSAA Handbook Policy or contrary to expectations of sportsmanship and proper behavior. Should probationary infractions persist at a member school or within a team at a member school, additional sanctions such as fines or suspensions could be implemented.”
The probation does not affect the cheerleaders’ ability to continue cheerleading. Tucker continued, “In the aforementioned instance, opportunities for participation were neither eliminated nor limited.”
A statement from Stanly County Schools said, “The NCHSAA did not suspend the cheerleading squad. The cheerleaders were present at the football game on September 13 and will be present at all remaining games during the season.”
The story was picked up by national media though, and many major local politicians made their views on the incident and resulting judgement by NCHSAA known.
Congressman Richard Hudson, a Republican who represents the area in the U.S. Congress, released a statement in the form of a letter to NCHSAA Commissioner Tucker saying, “It has recently come to my attention that cheerleaders at North Stanly High School were put on probation for the remainder of their season because they were pictured with other students holding political sign at a football game. As the representative of Stanly County, I am appalled these students are being punished for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.”
The national attention has led to a slew of phone calls to the district and to the school. There is a protest planned as well, but the district will not allow it to take place on campus.
“We’ve probably fielded 50 calls from people just being ridiculous,” James said on the public reaction. “Sad thing is, it’s gone beyond our community and now there are people involved who have an agenda.”
James told SCJ that the students sat down with their principal, Dr. Randy Mann, and Mann told James he concluded that it was “a bunch of kids doing it innocently. There was no ill intent.”
Some who were upset by the flag suggest there was an adult behind it, but there’s no evidence of that, according to James. He said their motivation seemed to be to get on a site that posts pictures of young Trump supporters displaying gear for the president at events around the country.
Rep. Wayne Sasser (R-Albemarle), who represents the area in the N.C. House, told Stanly County Journal he also doesn’t see intentional misbehavior. “I don’t think those kids intended to do anything wrong. Yes, they may have broken a rule, and the rules need to be enforced. But let’s not make a bigger case than is there.”
Sen. Carl Ford, a Republican who represents Stanly and Rowan counties in the state Senate, told SCJ it feels like a double standard on who gets called out. Ford said he visited multiple high schools in the district during the 2012 elections that had Obama posters prominently displayed in classrooms.
Neither the school nor the district plans on taking any action against the students, but Stanly County Schools did say that, “The focus of an athletic event should be on our students – not politics – which is why the school board has a policy that prohibits the distribution of political campaign material at school events or school publications.”
They said that they do not intend to limit the free speech of students with this policy and will allow students to speak their minds.
“Because the cheerleaders were in uniform and were acting as representatives of the school, the display of the sign could be perceived as the school or school system endorsing a political campaign. For this reason, the only action Stanly County Schools has taken is to ask the cheerleaders not to display the sign again.”