Community members respond after North Stanly HS cheerleaders put on probation for posing with Trump sign

Updated: Sep. 17, 2019 at 5:46 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Cheerleaders at North Stanley High School in Stanly County are on probation after photos made the rounds on social media of the girls posing with a TRUMP 2020 sign during a Friday night football game.

They are still allowed to cheer, but have been put on notice to discontinue this type of behavior by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.

“Football games are there to entertain. And that should be the one time you can get away from the political views,” Brandi Bennett said.

Bennett got upset when someone sent her the photo. She posted it to Facebook and her post has since been shared hundreds of times.

“I was bothered by it, not because of what it said but where it was at,” she said.

Stanly County Schools stepped in. In a statement to WBTV they say:

It is important to clarify the following points as it relates to this issue:

- During the football game that evening, the cheerleaders, while in uniform, held up a political campaign sign.

- Neither Stanly County Schools nor North Stanly High School disciplined the cheerleaders for this action.

- 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. This policy is in place to ensure the school system remains neutral on political issues and the focus remains on our students.

- This policy does not prohibit students from speaking their minds or engaging in protected First Amendment activities. 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.

- Upon becoming aware of this matter, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association placed the cheerleading squad on probation for the remainder of the football season. Probation is not a punishment, but the school is put on notice that further actions or behaviors that go against NCHSAA Handbook Policy or expectations of sportsmanship and proper behavior by the same team or school will be subject to punishment, in accordance with Handbook Rule 3.2.

- 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 NCHSAA is the governing body for inter-scholastic athletics in North Carolina. As a member of the NCHSAA, Stanly County Schools is required to comply with all NCHSAA rules and regulations.

Again, the focus of Friday night football games should be on our students – the players, cheerleaders, band members – the focus should not be on politics. For this reason, we are hopeful the situation will resolve, and our student athletes can have a successful fall season and unite the Comet school spirit for the remainder of the year.

But it did not end there.

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association decided to put the cheerleaders on probation. In a statement to WBTV, the NCHSAA says:

“While the NCHSAA does not have a specific policy prohibiting the display of political advertisements at athletic events, the behavior was contrary to the NCHSAA’s “Philosophy of Cheerleading” in the NCHSAA Handbook. This philosophy emphasizes the cheerleader’s important role in representing the school to its fans and others in attendance in a positive manner, while eliciting appropriate support for their team in accordance with the spirit and letter of NCHSAA and local school policies and expectations.

"It is our understanding that Stanly County Schools has a policy against political advertisements on campus or at school events. It is also our understanding that Stanly County Schools does not make political endorsements. As the district officials related in their release yesterday, ‘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.’

"NCHSAA probation, in and of itself, is not a punishment. 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 infractions occur during a probation period at a member school or within a team at a member school, additional sanctions such as fines or suspensions could be implemented. In the aforementioned instance, opportunities for participation were neither eliminated nor limited.

"The decision to place the cheerleaders on probation was made to highlight the NCHSAA’s philosophy of cheerleading as well as Stanly County Schools’ local district policy on political endorsements by individuals representing the school. The NCHSAA has no comment on the letter released by Representative Hudson.”

Jeremy Onitreb is one community member taking a stand against that decision. He is hosting an event to support the cheerleaders.

“This was an ultimate violation of the First Amendment and I had to do something about it," Onitreb said.

He's inviting anyone who wants to join to wave flags across from the school Friday night before the game.

“I don’t care if it’s a Bernie flag,” he said. “This is all about the First Amendment. I don’t want to suppress anyone else’s free speech, and I don’t want anyone else to suppress mine.”

He wants to put the attention back where he says it belongs.

“Everybody is encouraged afterwards to go back into the game and help support, financially, the team because they seem to be the one hurt the most by this,” he said.

The event is planned as a peaceful demonstration and will take place across from the school at 6 p.m. on Friday.

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