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Controversial pro sports-style protests are spreading through local high school athletics.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAKE MCNEAL - Parkrose High Schools varsity girls volleyball team knelt Oct. 2 during the national anthem before the game against St. Helens High School.

This story has been updated from its original version.

Parkrose High School's varsity girls volleyball team felt their bodies tingling before a home game against St. Helens High School on Oct. 2. Not because of the competition, but because of what they planned to do before it.

"They felt really anxious, but also really proud," said Kiara Johnson, a PHS senior who led the team with her decision to kneel that day during the national anthem. "It was really intense."

Kneeling during "The Star-Spangled Banner" began as a protest by professional football players against police violence targeting African-Americans; now the practice has spread to local high school athletes.

Johnson said she didn't plan that the opponent would be St. Helens the first time the entire team kneeled during the anthem. But there was no doubt it struck a particular chord.

"If there was any school that would be extremely offended by it, it would be them," Johnson said. She claims that her teammates have heard that team or their supporters use racial slurs like "the n-word with a hard R."

Jim Carlile, the interim St. Helens High School principal, said he was unaware of any such conduct from his students or their supporters. Carlile said he witnessed the Parkrose football team kneel during its Oct. 6 game against St. Helens, and said the mood between the two teams and their cheer sections was collegial.

Johnson, the Parkrose student, said she thinks more and more students across the city are kneeling for the anthem.

"Definitely," she said. "I know players on the girls basketball team and they plan to do it as well. People are still being targeted based on the color of their skin, and I think it's really important to talk about until that comes to an end."

Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest she's right. More and more high school students — particularly girls, but some boys — around Portland are kneeling during the national anthem at sporting events.

So far, it is almost unheard of in the surrounding suburbs and rural areas.

Lincoln High School's student group, Sisters of Color, organized 67 students to take a knee during an Oct. 27 Lincoln vs. Wilson High School football game.

Many Grant High girls soccer players knelt during an Oct. 31 playoff game against Lake Oswego High School.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: MILES VANCE - A portion of the Grant High School girls soccer team knelt during the national anthem before the Oct. 31 playoff game against Lake Oswego High School. Other students have been taking a knee less visibly. Members of a Benson Polytechnic High School basketball team knelt for the anthem at least once last spring, according to a Pamplin Media Group sports reporter.

Marshall Haskins, athletic director of Portland Public Schools, said he was unsure how widespread the protests are. Haskins said through three decades of his involvement in local sports, he has always seen a certain percentage of people who don't participate in the traditional song.

"There's always kids in the stands or individual players who have chosen not to stand or put their hand over their heart, or that kind of thing," Haskins said.

The difference now is that the act is tied up in identity politics.

When the Parkrose volleyball team all took a knee, it was in stark contrast to the St. Helens team, whose members all stood and then cheered after the national anthem finished.

Mixed reaction

The protests began in August 2016, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said he did it as a protest of police bias against people of color. He began by sitting out the national anthem, but switched to kneeling on one knee after meeting with a U.S. veteran and former Seattle Seahawks player who said he felt it would be more respectful to the military to kneel, as that's a common symbol of respect among soldiers.

The intended message against racial injustice seems to not have been heard by many, however, who see the protests as inherently disrespectful to the symbols of national pride.

Federal law says that when the national anthem is played, everyone "should" stand at attention with their hands over their hearts facing the American flag or toward the music if there is no flag. NFL owners, in a recent meeting, declined to change their own policy from "should" to "must."

The controversy reached a fever pitch in late September with a "tweet storm" by an enraged President Donald Trump. NFL players across the nation continue to kneel before games, and declining NFL ratings — as well as pizza sales by advertiser Papa John — have been linked to reaction to the protests.

Lincoln High School senior Sophia Wilson, president of Sisters of Color, said she has gotten a largely positive reaction to their Oct. 27 protest. Wilson, a cheerleader, said she and two other cheerleaders have been kneeling for the past year in solidarity with four footballers, who started kneeling earlier. But she wanted to start something bigger.

Sisters of Color, a group of about 25 students, made fliers in advance of their event and got dozens of people to come to an informational meeting the night before to discuss the action's history, meaning and to prepare for the likely reaction.

Wilson said she saw negative comments on Facebook and the KGW piece, but otherwise the experience was overwhelmingly positive.

"The entire Lincoln community has been very supportive," Wilson said. "Taking a knee is like taking the privilege that I have to speak for those who can't. Taking a knee is showing those people that I'm there for you."

For Wilson, who is multiracial, this is not a protest against police bias in particular, but against systemic oppression generally.

"We are taking a knee for the people who are hurt, who are being hurt, and who are losing their lives for this injustice," she said. "That's what we're trying to change using the resources here at Lincoln."

The plan is to keep doing it and hopefully field requests from other schools who want to organize their own protest, Wilson said.

After Wilson, Lincoln has the second-highest percentage of white students of any high school in the city. Aside from Benson, the Tribune was unable to confirm incidents of kneeling protests at more diverse Portland high schools such as Jefferson, Roosevelt and Madison.

Haskins said the district policy is to let students, coaches and others at games decide for themselves whether or not to stand at attention during the anthem.

"We just ask them or teams to be respectful and not bring attention to themselves and not be distracting from the people who are," he said, noting that he can recall only one or two complaints of unpatriotic student behavior in the past year.

"I definitely think that as more people do it, more people will want to join in," Wilson said. Students "will feel more comfortable," she says, "if people of all different races join in."

Update (11/10/17): Wilson High School has 74 percent white students and Lincoln High School has 71 percent, the second-highest percentage in the district.

Additionally, the name of St. Helens High School interim principal is Jim Carlile.

This version has been corrected and the Tribune regrets the errors.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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