SOUTH PORTLAND — Athletic Director Todd Livingston added a new directive this year for athletes, coaches and fans at school sports events: when the national anthem is played, stand and place your right hand over your heart.

But a group of students has asked school administrators to clarify that people can’t be compelled to take any kind of action during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

If anything, this is a teachable moment, Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin said Wednesday morning.

“We want our students to be critical thinkers,” Kunin said. “This is part of it – questioning things.”

This is the second time in the last year students have said they’ve felt pressured to participate in patriotic acts. The other was a Pledge of Allegiance incident during the 2015-2016 school year, when three senior students said they felt pressured to stand and recite the Pledge.

Students responded on the first day of classes this year to a series of tweets last week from the Athletic Department. The tweets described the “appropriate” way to participate during the anthem.

Prior to this year, people were simply asked to “please rise,” for the national anthem, Livingston said Wednesday.

His decision to instruct attendees and athletes to place their hand over their hearts is “an extension” of the department’s core covenants: respect, excellence and tradition, he said.

On Friday, Sept. 2, Livingston, who operates the @SPREDRIOTS Twitter account, sent a series of three tweets:

“National anthem code: all other persons present should face the flag and stand at attention with their hand over their heart.”

” … and men not in uniform, if applicable, should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder.”

The third included a photo of the football team holding their helmets at their waists, facing the flag, some with their heads bowed: “And the SP football team practicing the appropriate National Anthem code. RESPECT-EXCELLENCE-TRADITION.”

In his 15 years as a coach and administrator, Livingston said he’s never seen a student refuse to participate in the national anthem.

He also said his decision had no relation to the national debate swirling around San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has refused to stand for the national anthem before his team’s NFL games.

Rather, he said, it stems in part from a coaches retreat last summer, when the athletic department reached a consensus “that our players should address the national anthem in the appropriate way:” face the flag, remove one’s hat or helmet, and put one’s right hand over their heart.

“This is just something that the coaches and I agreed to work with our teams on,” Livingston said, while recognizing that, “just like the ‘Pledge of Allegiance,’ (it’s) certainly their choice” not to participate.

Ellen Stanton, a high school senior, said it “feels very similar” to last year, when three students felt pressured to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Both cases deal with civil rights as it overlaps with patriotism. Both situations involve people confusing peaceful protest with a rejection of American values, when, in fact, peaceful protest is a right of all Americans,” Stanton, 17, said Wednesday afternoon.

“In both cases, the language used by authority figures implies that protest might be unacceptable.”

Stanton and some other students got together after reading Livingston’s tweets and asked Kunin and SPHS Principal Ryan Caron if there is a new policy that requires them to participate.

There is no new policy, Kunin said Wednesday morning, and students still have the right to opt out of patriotic expressions such as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and standing during the national anthem.

The freedom to choose whether to participate dates back to a 1943 U.S. Supreme Court case, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette et al., Kunin said, which clarified that students can choose to exercise their right to free speech and not salute the American flag during the Pledge of Allegiance.

Livingston’s instructions, meanwhile, are consistent with federal statutes.

Title 36 Section 301 of the U.S. Code of Laws states that non-military citizens should “face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over their heart” during the national anthem. Those not in uniform should remove their hats “with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart.”

The three girls who felt pressured to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance first sought when they were juniors to have the recitation replaced by a moment of silence. But that idea gained little traction.

In the 2015-2016 school year, when the students were seniors, they instead proposed that the invitation to stand and recite the Pledge be revised to sound less mandatory. They also asked that the faculty leadership team to formally adopt a standard saying that no teacher can force a student to stand and participate, which was adopted last April.

Jasmine McKenzie, a senior at SPHS, said Wednesday that, like last year, she thinks it’s important for staff to emphasize that participation during the Pledge and the anthem is optional.

“I feel like, with some specific wording that is being used, it may be assumed by reading these (tweets) that (students) are being required, when that is not the case,” McKenzie, 17, said.

“I just want people to know that it is their right to stand or sit, and that one way is not being pushed,” she said.

Her classmate, Stanton, agreed.

“It would help if the administration clarified that there are multiple ways, including peaceful protest, to be respectful during the national anthem,” she said.

It would also help, Stanton said, if the athletic department’s Twitter account “clarified to its followers that there is no policy requiring students to stand during the anthem.”

Kunin said there’s a difference between demanding students stand during the national anthem and demonstrating the appropriate way to participate.

“I think it’s perfectly OK for a coach to say, ‘We’re going to stand for the anthem, (and) this is the way it’s normally done,” Kunin said. “But nobody has to do that. All we ask is the same with the Pledge – that folks are respectful.”

Rachel Healy, director of communications and public education for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, affirmed Thursday morning that “students should know that they have the constitutional right to sit during the national anthem without fear of punishment, and in fact silent protest is a time-honored way of participating in our democracy.”

“Teaching young people to cherish and exercise their fundamental rights should be a goal of our educational system,” she said.

Healy said the ACLU hopes the school “will use this opportunity to talk with their students not only about civic participation, but also their constitutional freedoms and what it means to be an informed member of the citizenry.”

Paul L’Heureux, state adjutant for the American Legion Department of Maine, also said the incident can be used as a teachable moment, but one that involves reminding people of the sacrifice military veterans made on their behalf.

He said he understands students have the right to not participate, but they should keep in mind that somebody had to pay for that right.

“Sometimes people forget what that stands for. Even though you have the liberty not to, many veterans died in order for that freedom to be acquired,” L’Heureux said. “We look at that (gesture) as respect for those who have protected those rights.”

McKenzie, Stanton and their peers have asked school administrators to send an email to all staff clarifying that participation during the anthem is “optional,” McKenzie said.

“The school administration needs to let students know that all choices are OK and should adopt policies and language which reflects this belief,” Stanton said.

“I love South Portland High School,” she continued, adding she just wants to “make sure that our administration is creating an atmosphere where all opinions are welcome.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

The South Portland Athletic Department last week tweeted this photo of high school football players to illustrate proper participation during the playing of the national anthem.

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