Jamestown school chief responds after teen kneels during anthem

The kneeling of a player on Jamestown’s freshman football team during the National Anthem prompted a response from school Superintendent Bret Apthorpe on Friday while also shedding light on a landmark Supreme Court ruling by Robert H. Jackson that tackled patriotism and free speech.

The comments from Apthorpe, who took the reins of the Jamestown School District this year following the departure of Tim Mains, came after the unidentified player took a knee Thursday during the National Anthem in a game between the ninth-grade team and Dunkirk’s JV team. The Red Raiders field varsity, junior varsity and ninth-grade teams.

The superintendent said the player’s actions presented an “opportunity for a learning moment among our students.”

“Jamestown coaches and teachers will use this opportunity for all students in our district to learn more about patriotism, sacrifice, civil rights, advocacy and freedom of speech,” Apthorpe said. “The event is not about consequences for students, and there will be no consequences for this student, but rather it is about a learning moment for all students.”

Several NFL players took a knee last week while others locked arms following comments made by President Donald Trump. At a rally in Alabama on Sept. 22, the president commented that NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem should be fired.

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first player to take a knee during a game. Kaepernick said he was protesting police brutality against black people.

Apthorpe reiterated in comments to the newspaper that the school district will use the kneeling as a learning tool.

“For us this is about learning,” Apthorpe said. “The NFL is about the entertainment business. We’re in the education business.”

“We want our kids to understand and value patriotism and sacrifice and free speech,” he continued. “And for us as a school, it’s a learning opportunity. That’s what we do.”

The superintendent said the district does not require school athletes to stand during the National Anthem at sporting events. He said the same holds true for students when it comes to saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

“We don’t muscle kids to say the Pledge of Allegiance, yet 99.9 percent of them do,” he said. “They do it because when they’re in early grades they learn about what the pledge is about. It’s a good opportunity for us now to talk about the National Anthem and why is it we say the National Anthem before major sporting events and also talk about civil rights. To me it’s a personal choice.”

A landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 ruled that schools could not force students to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance. The court’s 6-3 decision in “West Virginia State Board of Education V. Barnette” was written by the famed Jackson.

Walter Barnette was a Jehovah’s Witness in West Virginia who won an injunction after his children were expelled for refusing to salute the flag. The local school board appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

In writing the majority opinion, Jackson famously defended the First Amendment and free speech. His comments came two years after the court ruled that schools could compel students to salute the flag.

“The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts,” Jackson wrote. “One’s right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

John Barrett, a professor of law at St. John’s University in New York City and board member of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, noted the 75th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision on his blog.

“In the views of many, ‘Barnette’ is a high point in U.S. Supreme Court history and constitutional law and one of Justice Jackson’s very finest judicial opinions,” Barrett said. “His words in Barnette continue to ring, loudly and true, to people who think them through.”

Jordan W. Patterson contributed to this story.