Leave politics out of cheering coach decision


Sunday, March 11, 2018

It's still early in the 2018 election season, but already a victim of the developing political contests has fallen on the side of the campaign trail, and it's not a candidate dropping out of the race.

No, the victim we're acknowledging is a part-time, middle-school cheerleading coach who overlooked or forgot that schools and school employees, even part-time ones, must steer clear of political activities involving students and schools.

It was certainly a violation of school policy when River Road Middle School cheer coach Katie Andersen allowed team members during practice at school to put on their "McKecuen for Sheriff-"emblazoned hoodies and pose for a cellphone photo.

Even if the image had not gone viral on a social media post, it was still a violation of school policy. But because it was posted, and seen by others in and out of the school system, including supporters of other candidates running for Pasquotank County sheriff, the matter quickly morphed into a political confrontation.

The school administration dutifully and quickly conducted its own investigation and applied the necessary remedies. In addition, the incident energized the schools to re-emphasize to staff its policy on politics in schools. The Pasquotank Sheriff's Office also conducted an investigation, finding no crimes committed, and Pasquotank and state elections officials agreed no election laws were broken. The matter was promptly, officially and publicly addressed.

Because of the timing and the valid objections raised about the potential partisanship shown in the photo, the matter elevated the political temperature of the sheriff's race. The reality, however, is that the school rule violation didn't occur because of some illicit, organized political demonstration. It resulted from normal adolescent enthusiasm among a dozen or so middle school girls choosing to apply their cheer skills on behalf of a familiar and appreciated sheriff's deputy.

Last week, during an ECPPS school board meeting, several of those cheerleaders showed up to explain what was behind the events that began innocently but ended in the painfully heightened local political atmosphere and the resignation of their coach.

Showing loyal support for Andersen and asking that she be reinstated, they explained that no one — specifically not Andersen — pressured them to buy, wear or have a photo taken in formation wearing — what they did not know to be — the politically-objectionable hoodies.

Despite the team's support, because of her position, Andersen was responsible for the violations of school policy. She allowed the team to don the hoodies on school property, and then she took the photograph. In the following political uproar, she resigned her part-time job with the schools. Now cheerleaders she formerly coached have stepped up to let the public know their story behind the incident and to lobby for rehiring Andersen.

These cheerleaders have learned a valuable, but painful life lesson: They've experienced there can be costs for simply not knowing better. Accordingly, Andersen should have been proactive, explaining why certain activities are off limits for students in schools. Now she's had to bear the public cost of not doing that as well as the loss of her job.

The immediate question is whether Andersen has committed school policy violations that rise to the level of the current consequences: a middle school cheer team without their coach and a coach who obviously is close to this team.

School officials have to take many considerations into account when assessing staff discipline and applying, when necessary, the appropriate remedies when policy violations occur. Hence, their decision to rehire or not rehire Andersen may be influenced byseveral factors and not only on the obvious issues arising from the recent incident. Since that incident is the immediate focal point of the matter, however, school officials also must put the current political climate to the side and do what's right — not to satisfy the political crowd mentality — but to do what's best for the schools and students.