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Many young athletes joining Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest

Colin Kaepernick’s protest against social injustice is being heard loud and clear by young athletes across the country and a host of high school football players have emulated the San Francisco quarterback in recent weeks by kneeling during the national anthem before their own games.

That’s where the issue gets complicated.

In football-crazy states such as New Jersey, Alabama and Massachusetts, some players have faced suspension and others have reported harassment or even threats over their stance.

“We are not public institutions and free speech in all of its demonstrations, including protests, is not a guaranteed right,” wrote Mary Boyle, superintendent of the Catholic Schools Diocese of Camden, New Jersey. She told her administrators and coaches that players who failed to “demonstrate appropriate respect” by choosing not to stand for the national anthem could face game and team suspensions.

Michael Walsh, diocese spokesman, called the letter a “precautionary notice in light of what had been occurring at the professional level.” He said diocesan schools have always had a policy “to show respect and honor for God and country.”

Kaepernick has faced heavy criticism, but has continued to suit up each week -- without the support of the 49ers and NFL, but also without the threat of punishment. High school administrators and coaches are left to juggle the right of free speech with keeping order among their young charges.

David L. Hudson Jr., author of “Let The Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Freedom of Expression in American Schools,” said silent or passive protests like kneeling are not disruptive and therefore allowed under court rulings dating back decades.

“The highest court in the land ruled long ago, and it’s been upheld time after time, that students do not leave their free speech rights at the schoolhouse gate,” said Bob Farrace, director of public affairs for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.  He noted that the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that public school students in Iowa could wear black armbands to silently protest the Vietnam War. But they wouldn’t necessarily be allowed to picket in a school hallway.

“There are limits on students’ free speech,” Farrace said.

Michael Walker, director of the Office of Black Male Student Achievement in the Minneapolis Public Schools, said his class had discussed the NFL protest, using it as a starting point to research the verses of the national anthem. He didn’t know in advance that six or seven of local football players planned to take a knee during the anthem last Friday night. He re-tweeted a picture of the protest and said he has gotten no negative feedback.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels during the national anthem before the team’s NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in San Diego.  Chris Carlson, AP

“We want to make sure that our students have the space and safety to share their thoughts, their beliefs, their perspectives on different things that are happening within their community, within our society and so this is no different,” he said. “We let them make decisions on their own with the information that they have. But what we also discussed with them ... (were the) consequences for your actions. You have to understand that there is always two sides. There will be some people who will support you. There will be some people who will not support you in your stance and how are you ready to handle the repercussions of that?”

Sociologist Harry Edwards on 49ers Colin Kaepernick controversy 01:24

Junior quarterback Michael Oppong at Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, Massachusetts, said on Twitter that he was told he would be suspended for one game after announcing he would kneel during the anthem before a recent game. It was a decision district officials quickly reversed .

“(Oppong) did not violate any school rule when he peacefully and silently protested during the national anthem,” Worcester Superintendent Maureen Binienda said in a statement. “He exercised his constitutional rights without disturbing the school assembly and he is not being disciplined in any way by his actions.”

High school players aren’t the only ones following Kaepernick’s lead.

Preston Brown, football coach at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, took a knee during the anthem before his first game of the season. Brown said he didn’t ask his team to join him ahead of time, but all but two of his players did so. Afterward, Brown said that he wanted to call attention to social injustices and economic disparities.

“I grew up in poverty, a lot of these kids are growing up in poverty,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of social injustices and economic disparities. There’s issues right here in our own community.”

Soccer star kneels during anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick 00:26

It’s a message that resonates across Camden, a predominantly African-American community and one of New Jersey’s poorest.  Brown’s bosses with the school district expressed support for the flag as well as the right for Brown and his players to kneel, calling it “a personal issue.”

In Rockford, Illinois, some football players at Auburn High took a knee during the anthem and the school saw it as a teachable moment. Athletic director Mat Parker said coaches and players would discuss the protest “in what we hope will be a meaningful dialogue.”

“The student athletes said they wanted to create more social awareness of racial injustice in America,” coach Dan Appino said. “They made it clear that they did not intend to disrespect our military; rather, they wanted to embrace the freedom of expression and other constitutional rights that our military fought so hard to preserve. This movement is sweeping the nation as a peaceful form of protest. I am not happy that football is being used as the platform for this protest, but I respect the passion our kids feel about this topic.”

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