SOUTH PORTLAND — The high school athletic director’s recent tweets telling student athletes and spectators to stand and place their hands over their hearts during the national anthem have raised concerns that some students might feel pressured to do what is considered voluntary under the law.

Though South Portland Athletic Administrator Todd Livingston said Friday his social media posts weren’t in response to a specific incident, they come amid a national debate sparked by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem and the decision by other professional athletes to follow suit. And Livingston’s posts were followed this week by an email from the state’s association of athletic directors advising its members to plan for possible protests during sports events.

Livingston posted three tweets Sept. 2 on the athletic department’s Twitter account, @SPREDRIOTS, outlining appropriate behavior whenever “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played.

Everyone “present should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart,” the first tweet said. “And men not in uniform, if applicable, should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder,” the second said.

Livingston’s tweets quote directly from guidelines that are in federal statute, although the law does not include any penalties for people who don’t follow the standards.

The third tweet showed a photograph of the South Portland High School football team, heads bowed and helmets held at their hips, “practicing the appropriate national anthem code.” The tweet also referenced the department’s core covenants of respect, excellence and tradition, which all coaches are emphasizing.

“The anthem is one small piece of that, but it’s one very visible piece,” Livingston said Friday. “I want our teams to look good and to behave appropriately whenever they address the flag.”

But the tweets reminded some South Portland High students of the controversy over saying the Pledge of Allegiance that was sparked by students at the school during the 2014-15 school year.

After seeing Livingston’s tweets, senior Ellen Stanton sent an email to Principal Ryan Caron and Superintendent Ken Kunin over the Labor Day weekend, asking whether there had been a policy change that required students to participate in the national anthem in a particular way.

“I was a little concerned, seeing that coming from the school’s social media,” Stanton said, especially given news reports about incendiary responses to Kaepernick’s actions.

Stanton, a top student who is involved in social justice issues, was aware of school administrators’ response last year to students who wanted to make sure their peers knew that saying the pledge is optional. “I know how that went down and how the administration was concerned about how students felt,” she said.

Caron responded immediately to Stanton’s email, letting her know that there was no policy change and students weren’t legally required to participate in the national anthem. Caron then met with Stanton and another student at school this week to clarify school policy, Kunin said.

“It’s not a requirement, but if students are going to (participate in the national anthem), this is the generally accepted way students are going to do it,” Kunin said. “Staff were also instructed to make sure students aren’t pressured to do so, but that they understand people fought and died for the rights we all enjoy.”

NATIONAL DEBATE

Livingston said he’s never seen a player refuse to stand with his team during the national anthem. “If they decide not to, that’s certainly up to them,” he said.

He said his tweets had nothing to do with Kaepernick’s protest. They’re part of an overall campaign to promote the athletic department’s core covenants, which grew out of a coaches’ retreat held in the summer of 2015, he said.

“It was innocent,” Livingston said. “It wasn’t intended to irritate or frustrate anyone.”

Still, Livingston said, he understands how people could make that connection to Kaepernick.

The San Francisco 49ers quarterback has drawn nationwide attention for his decision to protest racial oppression and police brutality by refusing to stand for the national anthem. He has been criticized by many for being disrespectful, but his protest has sparked widespread discussion about respect for the flag, racism and the right of self-expression.

His refusal to stand also has been taken up by other professional athletes. U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe knelt during the national anthem before the Seattle Reign match this week and numerous media outlets reported that the entire Seattle Seahawks team was planning some sort of national anthem protest Sunday.

The subject of how Maine high school coaches should respond if students stage a protest at one of their games came up this week at a meeting of athletic directors in southern Maine, Livingston said.

Martin Ryan, executive director of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, said he sent an email to members this week advising them to develop a response plan so they’re prepared if students do stage a protest during a sports event.

“Be proactive. Have the conversation now,” Ryan said. “I think it’s healthy to talk about it. You have to be respectful of students’ rights and respectful of the rights of others. Probably no response is the best response, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s rights.”

STUDENT REACTION

Stanton wasn’t aware of any South Portland students who were planning national anthem protests, but she wanted to make sure that no one would be prevented from doing so. She’s confident that Caron, Kunin and Livingston will defend students’ rights if the need arises, she said, but she’s concerned that some students might feel pressured to comply by individual coaches.

“It still requires some courage to stand up and protest, or sit down and protest in this case,” Stanton said.

The opinions of a handful of students attending football games in southern Maine on Friday night varied, but most did not support Kaepernick’s protest.

“By not standing, he disrespects more than just law enforcement. He also disrespects the troops who fought for this country, and those who died for this country,” Edward Little senior Marshall Chadbourne said at his school’s home game against Portland.

Sanford sophomore Megan O’Connell had a similar view.

“I think it’s disrespectful not to stand up,” said O’Connell, who was at Sanford’s home game against Deering. “You should appreciate what other people are fighting for.”

Falmouth student Shannon Staples thought Kaepernick was going about his protest in the wrong way.

“Obviously, there are things that could be addressed or fixed,” said Staples, who was watching the Yachtsmen’s home game against Westbrook. “He’s trying to make a statement, but disrespecting the national anthem is not the way to do it. He should use his fame to do something about it in a different way.”

Another Falmouth student, Andrew Muscadin, believes Kaepernick has ulterior motives.

“I think it was just to get his name back out there,” Muscadin said. “He has sold more jerseys in the past week than in the past eight months. So, no, I don’t think he did it as a social statement. All I can say is God bless America.”

One student found Kaepernick’s protest thought-provoking and said it prompted her to research the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I think it was interesting that was the way he decided he was going to protest,” Lilly Young, a Scarborough senior, said at the Red Storm’s home game against Bonny Eagle. “I didn’t really understand it at first, but now after looking into it I kind of realize that if you want to contribute to patriotism you really want to know that all men are created equal and I think he’s kind of saying that they’re not (treated that way) anymore.”

Staff Writers Kevin Thomas, Steve Craig, Mike Lowe and Taylor Vortherms contributed to this report.