CAIRO — Officials with the Grady County School System say a decision on whether to punish students who took part in an apparent protest at last week's Cairo High School football game will be made within the next several days.

Superintendent Kermit Gilliard said seven students in the Syrupmakers Marching Band kneeled during their performance of the national anthem prior to kickoff Friday night. A preliminary school system investigation into the incident so far indicates that the protest was not related to anything that occurred at CHS or in the community.

"It was more about what's going on nationwide as opposed something locally," Gilliard said.

The superintendent was unsure if there are any written rules concerning the performance of the national anthem that the students may have violated, though he noted that there is an expectation among marching band members to perform as a unit.

A decision on what disciplinary action the students may face, if any, will be made sometime this week. The superintendent stated earlier in the week that the incident will be "addressed in accordance with the rules and laws of the United States of America," and he cited Tinker v. Des Moines, a Vietnam War-era Supreme Court case that upheld students' right to peacefully protest.

"The Supreme Court said that students don't shed their constitutional right to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gate," he said. 

Reaction to the protest drew a shark rebuke from some in the community, and parents reported that they had seen threats on social media to create a disturbance in the CHS student parking lot Monday morning

The threats, which were made in the comments section of a Facebook post expressing disappointment in the kneeling incident that attracted more than 1,000 replies, indicated that vehicles in the student parking lot would be damaged. A separate potential threat was made by an adult who insinuated that he would pay money to anyone who attacked the students who kneeled. School district officials also became aware of a Snapchat that circulated among the community that insinuated that there would be some form of violence Monday.

No students are known to have made any threatening posts.

Additional school resource officers were posted at the CHS campus Monday to assist with any possible incidents, though nothing ultimately arose. Law enforcement with the Cairo Police Department and the Grady County Sheriff's Office were also made aware of the threats.

Gilliard himself was present on campus Monday morning.

"From what I could tell, it appeared to be a normal day," he said.

The superintendent said that much of the blame for the heightened security concerns Monday fall on adults rather than students.

"The students can work this out," he said. "It's the adults that seem to get in the way, particularly on social media.

"I would say we have excellent students for the most part. We all have the opportunity to make a mistake, and I wouldn't tell you that we don't have students who make mistakes, but we've got good kids."

Monday was also an unofficial "black-out" day at CHS. African American students were encouraged to wear all black, coinciding with a similar event at Thomas County Central High School, according to Gilliard. He said several students took part in the demonstration without incident.

"There's no problem with wearing all black," the superintendent said.

Gilliard said that criticisms, mostly among adults, that political apparel supporting certain candidates is not allowed are unfounded. Shirts supporting both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are accepted at CHS as long as they are not derogatory, Gilliard said. 

"Students have worn Black Lives Matter, they've worn Biden, they've worn Trump and we've not had any issues," he said. 

The superintendent also said he spoke directly with students about the issue, none of whom said they were told to go home or change clothes due to wearing political apparel. Principal Chris Lokey said that the school has not sent any student home for wearing political clothing.

Friday night's incident and the ensuing fallout is a sign that students need a constructive atmosphere to air out their concerns, Gilliard said.

"Because of everything going on in the world, and in particular the United States, we have kids who need to talk about it," he said. "They need to talk this out, and have their feelings heard." 

To help facilitate those concerns in a constructive forum, school officials are looking into creating a club for students to discuss their opinions among each other, or to encourage kids to look into joining existing groups like the debate team to learn how to exchange ideas without taking disagreements personally.

"Who knows, we may get some debaters out of this and win a debate competition," Gilliard said.

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