Controversy and Discourse Follow NHS Volleyball Protest
NEWINGTON - Members of the Board of Education and Newington High School student body leadership stood behind a group of volleyball players that chose to kneel during the National Anthem during a September 28 match-an echo to the controversial NFL protests that have sparked spirited debate at the national level.

       Members of the NHS Girls Volleyball team, led by Captain Yasmin Rincon, came to the Board’s October 12 regular meeting to explain the context behind the decision to partake in the demonstration, as residents from both sides of the issue voiced their own sentiments throughout an emotional evening.

       “All the students had their own reasons,” Rincon said. “I chose to kneel to protest the police brutality against African Americans, and racial inequality in this country. Everyone should be treated equally and with respect. Nobody should have to fear for their lives in this country.”

       Her stated purpose is the same one voiced by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the protest last year. Like Kaepernick, Ricon expressed that she had hoped to start a conversation, and in Newington she has. While many residents, through social media, have come out in support of the students’ right to express their concerns in that manner, others have taken issue with the method-considered in wide circles to be an affront to the American flag and veterans that served it.

       Republican Council Majority Leader Beth DelBuono, a former President of the local American Legion Lady’s Auxiliary, falls into the latter category. She and her husband, Scott-a veteran himself-walked into the meeting toward the end, expressing their displeasure in the second round of public comments.

       “I know many of the girls personally,” DelBuono said. “I understand their right to protest. I don’t personally agree with the form of protest. We stand behind our veterans and our flag and the national anthem. I view kneeling as a sign of disrespect. They did fight for our rights, but if you ask them, never in their wildest nightmares would they imagine that it included protesting our flag and our national anthem.”

       DelBuono stressed that she wasn’t advocating for punishment, but that she hoped the students seek different avenue to express their dissent in the future.

       Scott, however, took a harsher tone.

       “You have a right to suspend these people from the game,” he said. “They don’t have to play. You’re standing for them kneeling during the National Anthem? You people should be ashamed of yourselves.”

       He was referring to the district’s student athlete handbook, which refers to participation in sports as “a privilege”. But the Supreme Court precedent would more than trump any local policy, supporters stated. The protest was never meant as an unpatriotic gesture-in fact, just the opposite, players and their supporters said in response to the backlash.

       “What kind of democracy would it be if we silenced the voices we didn’t agree with?” said NHS Student Council President Lucas Houle in an impassioned statement delivered at the start of the meeting. “I would never silence you, no matter how you feel, but just know that the Supreme Court is on the side of those who protested.”

       Houle’s statement referred to, among other things, whether the administration should seek reprimand or sanctions against the team. He cited Supreme Court precedent in the form of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a Vietnam era case in which the Court ruled that First Amendment protections apply to public school students-in that instance, a group looking to express opposition to U.S. involvement in the conflict by wearing black armbands.

       In Tinker, the Court established that under the standard of “strict scrutiny”, a student’s First Amendment rights extend beyond the “classroom” as long as their exercising of them do not interfere with the activity or lesson at hand, or infringe on the rights of others, according to National Federation of State High School Associations website.

       The ruling also addressed district student athlete policy in describing it as-in general-too “vague” and “broad” to hold up in court, Federation said.

       Board member Josh Shulman, an attorney, cited West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette-a 1943 case considered to have laid the groundwork for the Tinker ruling. He admitted wondering whether the Barnette case-applicable in the sense that it established that public schools cannot mandate that students stand for the Pledge of Allegiance-was wide reaching enough to extend to extracurricular activities, noting what he described as a more definitive verdict in Tinker.

       “I want you to know that the vast majority of this Board understands your rights, and will go to bat for your rights, even if it was an issue we don’t agree on,” Shulman said.

       Not in attendance to have his say was Steve Silvia, who responded via Facebook in the days following the protest by posting a copy of the CABE bullying policy-which mandates any of a variety of intervention options in the event that students engage in a wide range of conduct that includes discrimination and creating a “hostile environment”. Supporters of the team took issue with his post, which they viewed as a move to lobby the Board and administration for punishment.

       Over the phone the next day, Silvia, who was absent due to a “business appointment”, explained that while the protest had hit him on an emotional level-his father served in the military-he did not post the policy as a call for disciplinary action.

       “All I was doing was pointing out what policies were in place if the administration wished to apply them,” Silvia said.

       During his comments, Houle described subsequent posts referencing both CIAC policy and National Federation of High School Sports guidelines, and stated that neither of the athletic governing bodies have an explicit rule relating to kneeling for the National Anthem.

       Three days before the players took their knee, Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Schools Dr. Karissa Niehoft-who heads the group of Commissioners in charge of the CIAC-told WTNH that the CIAC would leave it up to individual school districts to decide how to respond to an Anthem protest scenario, while working alongside them to facilitate community dialogue.

       The National Federation’s own take on the issue has been to cite the Tinker case law-particularly the ruling language stating that expressions that prompt controversy and disagreement do not meet the Court’s standard of proof for what constitutes a “substantial disruption”.

       Silvia, who also works as a volleyball referee, said he first looked to see how CIAC officials handled the protest, before turning to the district. He said that he contacted Board members with the hopes of setting up a special meeting to discuss the matter.

       “I was curious to try to understand why they felt the need to do what they did,” he said. “It hurt me to hear this, but they have the right to do as they wish. It’s what everyone has fought for-not even just veterans, but individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King.”

       Silvia said that he wanted to ensure that none of the students who took part did so under the influence of peer pressure, but during the meeting, Rincon told Board members that each player that participated did so by their own volition, following a team discussion.

       Silvia said in later Facebook posts that he’d like to help the students reach their stated goals, outside the method they chose.

       Superintendent of Schools Bill Collins admitted that he also needed to take some time to understand where the students were coming from.

       “My first thought was that it was politically motivated and disrespectful to our flag,” Collins said in a Facebook discussion. “I was mortified at first thinking about the possible message we were sending to other communities and the parents and grandparents who would also misunderstand the intent.”

       So he met with Athletic Director Chris Meyers and Principal Terra Tigno to discuss it further, coming to an understanding.

       “We all can hopefully rationalize that although we may not agree, we must protect the rights of our citizens under the constitution no matter how distasteful we may find someone’s actions,” he wrote. “We all know the reason our country prospered was because of our diversity in race, skills, and thought. We can't lose sight of the intention of our forefathers. Freedom to speak your mind, express your religious beliefs, love the person who makes you happy, protect yourself and your family and so many other freedoms we sometimes take for granted were given to us by people who fought and still fight to keep it that way. Our girls wanted to start a discussion to express their dissatisfaction with the way some people have been treated. They did what they felt was right and I applaud them for having the courage to start the discussion.”

       Beth DelBuono said that although the demonstration “upset” her, she wasn’t going to speak to the Board about it until watching the public comments that night. She took issue in particular with their expression of “pride” in the students’ actions.

       “People are upset, and I don’t think the right thing to say is that we’re proud,” she said.

       But the phrasing was meant to commend them for taking a controversial stand, both for something they believe in and their right to express it, while displaying poise in the face of its backlash-a teachable moment in preparing them to participate in a democratic society, Board members said. .

       “We want our students speaking their minds, and standing up for one another,” said Board member Emily Guion. “That’s citizenship for you.”

       Robert Tofeldt, Jr., who was silent on the issue during the meeting, took a countering position via Facebook, expressing disapproval with the protest tactic. A veteran, Tofeldt took the kneeling as a show of disrespect.

       “There are other ways to demonstrate your position,” he wrote. “The four girls who stood during the playing of the National Anthem at the last game, I applaud you for making your own respectful decisions.”

       Paul Vessella, who was not in attendance, admitted on Facebook that he was torn.

       “I feel very strongly that every American has the right to express themselves in peaceful and law abiding ways,” he wrote. “This is what our veterans fought and gave their lives for. In this case, I think the student athletes should have chosen a different way to meet their objectives. The dialogue lead by the administration of the high school and students is a positive result which I hope leads to a better understanding by all parties.”

       Board Chair Nancy Petronio, in an emotional statement at the meeting’s conclusion, said that she, too, had had mixed feelings due to the fact that her father served in Vietnam, but expressed that as a representative of the students, she felt it was her duty to stand up for their rights.

       And as for the gesture of kneeling-equated to flying the flag at half mast in a New York Times Op-Ed written by former Kaepernick teammate Eric Reid-Board-candidate Michael Branda reminded meeting goers that it has drawn differences of opinion even among veterans.

       Branda quoted his high school friend from New York, Richard Rampe-who served in Iraq from 2000 to 2004.

       "If the anthem plays, I stand, salute, and remember,” Branda quoted. “When the music ends and my memories fade, if the man next to me is kneeling, I would offer him my hand. A great lesson I learned is that you don’t have to agree with your fellow American. You just have to accept him. Unity will always be our greatest strength."

       One thing both sides agree on, is expressed interest in seeing what comes next for the students. According to Rincon, the group plans to issue other statements characterizing the town as “an inclusive community”, while reaching out to the Newington Police Department to discuss opportunities to collaborate.

       “As varsity athletes, we have a platform many people do not have,” she said. “We decided to use the platform to advocate for people that do not have an opportunity to have their voices heard.”