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YEAR IN REVIEW: After NSHS incident, James said political advertising in schools could increase with election looming

Superintendent Dr. Jeff James, speaking about lessons learned from the Trump 2020 flag incident earlier this year at North Stanly, said more student political advertising could find its way into school systems next year with the presidential election upcoming.

“It’s going to get worse, too, as the election comes up,” James said. “It’s going to pop up again.”

The incident occurred on Aug. 30 during a North football game, when several cheerleaders were photographed holding a sign supporting President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. The photo quickly disseminated across social media.

Neither the school system nor North Stanly disciplined the cheerleaders, though the Trump sign violated a school board policy that prohibits the distribution of political campaign material at school events or school publications. 

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association took action and placed the cheerleaders on probation, though they could still cheer on the sidelines of games. The probation was effectively a warning for violating the principles laid out in the “Philosophy of Cheerleading” section of the association’s handbook.

The decision by the NCHSAA sparked outrage from many in the community — Facebook groups were created in support of the cheerleaders, U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) sent a letter to the NCHSAA questioning the organization’s decision to place the cheerleaders on probation and several concerned citizens conducted a rally across from the high school.

The incident caught national and international attention, with The New York Times, The Washington Post and BBC News in Britain all covering the incident. 

Stanly is not the only county in the state that has dealt with recent school issues related to Trump. Last year, a student at Harnett Central High School was told to remove a jersey bearing Trump’s name during a football game. A few weeks ago, a North Surry High School student made a joke about Trump during an improv meeting, according to the Laurinburg Exchange. Surry County Schools worked to distance itself from the gag and the Surry County Sheriff’s Office conducted an investigation before deeming the joke not to be a credible threat to the president, according to local media reports.

James said while the central office and school board did a good job managing the aftermath of the picture’s release and handling all of the requisite media coverage, communication could have been better — both for the school system and the NCHSAA.

“At the end of the day, no matter how good you do, I think you can always improve communication,” James said. 

He said confusion was created when the NCHSAA placed the cheerleaders on probation even though the girls could still actively cheer during football games. 

“I just think the general public got hung up on a word thinking the cheerleaders were not going to get to cheer,” he said, referring to probation.

He said the school system could have worked with the NCHSAA to produce more concise language, such as using the word reprimand instead.

Getting all of the relevant stakeholders on the same page regarding the incident would have also helped, James said. 

“We probably should have just all got together — brought press in, brought (NCHSAA Commissioner) Que Tucker on the phone and just said, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’”

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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