“…they have the right to do it, but to me it’s disrespectful and, as a coach, I would have that right not to have that person on the team.”

These are the words of Hall of Fame University of Connecticut coach, Geno Auriemma, in response to my refusal to salute the American flag during the playing of the national anthem before my college basketball games.

Fourteen years before the current wave of protests, initiated last year by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, I used the national anthem as a vehicle to protest injustices in the United States.

It was the 2002–2003 basketball season and I was a senior co-captain of the team. United States nationalism was at its post 9/11 peak and the country was on the brink of invading Iraq. I was a senior sociology major at Manhattanville College, a small Division III school in Purchase, New York. My courses opened my eyes to the historical oppression of my ancestors and the present day manifestations of this same oppression – the Prison Industrial Complex, Rockefeller Drug Laws, embargoes, redlining and police brutality. I could no longer, in good conscience, salute a flag that demanded my respect yet offered none in return. Turning my back to the flag became national news.

The backlash was massive. Thousands of letters and emails called for me to be kicked off of the team and out of school, demanded my academic scholarship be revoked, hoped I’d be forced out of the country and sentenced to death. Some promised to kill me themselves. One man even trespassed onto campus and onto the court in the middle of a game in order to shout at me.I felt unsafe. But my school’s response to my protest made all the difference. The school president gave me direct access to him. He had my bushels of mail checked for hazardous materials. My coach absorbed a steady flow of criticism and remained steadfast in his support of me.

Not every school would have responded this way.

As #TakeAKnee spreads beyond the NFL, fueled in part by President Trump’s calls to fire the league’s players who refuse to stand for the anthem, I grow increasingly concerned that schools are responding with heavy-handed discipline for students who protest. Already, a Texas high school kicked two football players off the team for protesting, and other schools have issued warnings and threats of punishment.

The Supreme Court ruled in the ACLU case, Tinker v. Des Moines, that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Further, responding to protests punitively misses the point. Just as professional athletes are not protesting the flag or anthem, neither are students. They are questioning their world and exploring their capacity to change it. This shouldn’t be a punishable offense. It’s applied education.

As a microcosm of society, schools can either conform to the larger society or model a new possibility. They must choose the latter. They must resist the impulse to punish dissent. They must reject the belief that obedience is a prerequisite for learning. They must replace heavy-handed discipline with responses that affirm and dignify students.

New York State’s school climate law, The Dignity Act, is one of the strongest school climate laws in the country. It seeks to establish safe and supportive school environments, free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment and bullying. The NYCLU is on the taskforce currently assessing how to improve the effectiveness of The Dignity Act trainings. As we work toward this goal, school staff and administrators must see themselves as contributors to school climate rather than enforcers. How can we prevent bullying when adults mirror the intimidation coming from the White House? How can we address bias when students are silenced for speaking out against racial discrimination?

Schools have the potential to be fertile ground for questioning and catalysts for justice. As a country that has yet to protect all people under its constitutional umbrella, the realization of equity lives somewhere down the path of courageous conversations. Our students are being courageous. As adults, we should be brave enough to let them. 

If your public school in New York State is requiring you to stand for the national anthem, we want to hear from you.

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