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Baltimore Ravens players, including former player Ray Lewis, second from right, kneel down during the playing of the U.S. national anthem before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium in London, Sunday Sept. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) ORG XMIT: TH109

Matt Dunham

Worried about potential fights breaking out if students protested, Central High School earlier this week initially decided not to have students sing the national anthem Friday afternoon at a school pep rally.

But after a parental outcry, the school decided to go ahead with the performance. 

“We’ve learned a very valuable lesson,” said Sandy Davis, assistant superintendent of Central public schools.

Parkway High School in Bossier City sought to head off such protests in a different way. The school’s principal issued a letter Thursday morning warning that student athletes who don’t “stand in a respectful manner” during the anthem could lose playing time, be benched or be kicked off their team.

The ACLU quickly responded via tweet: "The Supreme Court ruled that students don't have to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance—that goes for the national anthem on the ball field too." In a statement, the ACLU of Louisiana continued that punishing students who kneel in protest is a violation of their First Amendment rights. 

A year ago, Louisiana schools grappled with this issue, sparked by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the anthem last year to protest high-profile incidents of black men being killed by police. As it turned out, protests at high school games were rare and muted.

President Donald Trump reignited the controversy with comments during a Sept. 22 rally in Alabama. That prompted NFL players all over the country to take a knee as Kaepernick did.

With football games taking place Friday across the state, there’s renewed concern among some school officials the protests that failed to occur a year ago will happen now.

When it comes to dealing with such student protests, Louisiana schools are largely left to their own devices. After Kaepernick’s protest last year, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association issued a statement saying it is not weighing into the issue and is instead leaving the matter solely in the hands of individual schools. The association reissued the same statement this week.

Parents in the suburban, politically conservative Baton Rouge school district of Central took to social media Wednesday and Thursday to complain about the school’s decision not to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the pep rally, prompting the reversal Thursday morning.

The initial decision to not sing the national anthem was made earlier this week by Central High Principal David Prescott in consultation with Superintendent Michael Faulk.

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Faulk was out of town Thursday, so Davis intervened. She and Prescott spoke and agreed that the high school should sing the anthem after all.

Davis said there was a concern about having so many students in the school gym who might have different ideas about whether to participate in the anthem or not. She said all school faculty will be interspersed throughout the school gym Friday afternoon to prevent any fighting.

“We know that kids feel strongly on both sides of this issue, because they have heard from their parents about it,” Davis said.

She said the national anthem was always going to be played at Friday night’s football game, adding there are fewer safety concerns at the stadium.

Davis told The Advocate that schools hold pep rallies regularly but don’t always sing the national anthem at them. In this case, the school released a program for Friday's pep rally showing the choir singing the anthem, but then changed the agenda. Davis said she thinks that’s where the news first spread.

Bossier Parish Schools Superintendent Scott Smith issued a statement Wednesday that he won’t stand for any protests; he expects all student athletes in Bossier to stand for the national anthem and that students who don’t will get punished by their individual schools.

Across the Red River, Caddo Parish Superintendent Lamar Goree issued a much different statement, saying that Caddo lets “students and staff to practice their First Amendment rights as long as that practice does not impede on the ability of others to practice their beliefs.”

In the Capital region, public school districts appear to be leaving such calls to individual school principals and staff. Representatives of Ascension and East Baton Rouge Parish both issued statements Thursday along those lines.

“Each coach of every sport is responsible for setting student athlete expectations and those may vary by school and sport,” said Jackie Tisdell, a spokeswoman with Ascension Parish said.

This story was edited after publication to clarify ACLU statements. 

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier