North Carolina

Students feared Trump cheerleader rally but faced ‘no threat,’ NC sheriff says 

The Stanly County sheriff says “there was never a threat” when fearful students preemptively walked out of class last week, worried a high school football game would turn violent amid controversy over pro-Trump cheerleaders.

But school district officials say they had to weigh the consequences of “potential actions” when deciding to postpone the game.

“We are charged with the care and well being of our students. We are pseudo parents on campus,” the district said in a statement to the Observer.

“When making the decision to postpone and reschedule school events, we ask a sincere question: ‘Would I send my child to an event in this atmosphere?’”

The information from the sheriff and district officials this week provides new details about how security concerns were handled at North Stanly High School. Last week’s game was abruptly called off and moved to the next day after dozens of people were expected to hold a rally in support of the cheerleaders.

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Rally organizers and some community members worried the cheerleaders’ First Amendment rights were violated when the North Carolina High School Athletic Association put the team on probation after they held up a “Trump 2020” banner while in uniform at the game.

Amid concerns about safety, more than 70 students were picked up early from school and nearly 15% of students were absent on the day of the game — far above an average school day, district officials said.

Sheriff Jeff Crisco told the Observer he had planned to send at least 70 deputies to the game for added security — about seven times as many deputies than would normally man the game.

The sheriff’s office said it looked into possible security threats and found no cause for concern.

“That probably would have been the safest ball game in the state of North Carolina,” Crisco said.

Now, district officials say they’re taking another look at how school leaders communicate internally and with law enforcement on such issues. On Thursday, the district said it met with Crisco to discuss what happened.

“After a detailed conversation of procedures that took place within both parties, it was apparent that safety was the utmost concern for all involved. We are committed to continue working together to build a stronger and more unified communication plan,” the district said in a statement on Facebook.

‘Never a threat’

The sheriff’s office says deputies found students were concerned fights might occur “stemming from the rally.” But, according to the sheriff’s office, none of those students mentioned any specific threat “other than the concern of fights occurring.”

Before the game, some students said they’d received a possible threat from an unknown phone number, according to the sheriff’s office. Deputies then interviewed students and parents involved and even obtained an emergency order to get information from a cell phone provider about who might have made the call.

“Within 30 minutes, all parties involved had been spoken to and it was determined that no threat had been made to the school and no threat with any type of weapon had occurred,” according to the sheriff’s office. “To be clear there was never a threat made to the school itself or any of the students.”

If there was any other threat or security concern that led school district officials to call the game, then his law enforcement officers weren’t told about it, Crisco says.

Some have accused the Stanly County School Board for postponing the game over bogus threats or exaggerated fears about safety once word spread of the planned rally. Organizers of the rally also say they’ll attend an Oct. 8 school board meeting.

“At this meeting we plan to question the board about the cancellation of the game ... And why they chose not to give us the truth behind the cancellation of the game,” the event description on Facebook states. “Remember this is a public meeting and we will go there peacefully and respectfully.”

School board Chair Melvin Poole responded to an open letter this week from the creators of the rally event — now organizing under the name “March of the Patriot” — on Facebook.

“Have no clue who you are and could care less,” Poole said in the post. “If you are so brave why do you hide behind a label? Funny you trying to bully me because you accuse me of letting someone else bully me. What a joke if you think student safety is to be played with you are disgusting.

“No one intimidates me and you certainly don’t,” Poole’s post continued. “You take public education to a sad level. Tell the people of Stanly County you don’t care about the safety of their children. I am waiting.”

“They keep up this mess my boiler is gonna get fired up sure enough,” he added in another comment.

District administrators, too, have defended the decision, saying this week that they “received numerous calls of concern from our community members” about the Sept. 20 game. Before the game, the district said only that they’d received information “that could compromise safety measures our schools have in place for sporting events,” without mentioning the rally or the cheerleaders specifically.

What set this off?

The state athletic association, NCHSAA, placed the cheerleaders on probation earlier this month after a picture of them with the Trump banner began circulating on social media.

District officials said the squad would still cheer during Friday night football games, and the NCHSAA clarified the probation was not a form of punishment, The Charlotte Observer reported.

Probation is a small sacrifice for our support of President Trump making America great again. #MAGA,” the cheerleaders wrote on their Facebook page after the decision was made public.

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The North Stanly High cheerleaders declined to comment, citing concerns about the NCHSAA. But they are hoping some good comes out of the trouble.

“Thank you for your support, President Trump!” they wrote on the squad’s official Facebook page. “We are hoping for an invitation to visit The White House!”

Why are people upset?

Some feared the teens’ First Amendment rights were infringed.

One community member created a petition calling for the NCHSAA to rescind the probation, which had more than 700 signatures on Tuesday.

Others rallied for the cheerleaders Friday night — even after the district canceled the game.

“There was no threat,” Jeremy Onitreb, one of the rally organizers, told McClatchy news group in response. “Nobody’s coming up there to hurt the kids. It’s not what this was about.”

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The rally garnered interest from roughly 1,400 people on Facebook and drew a crowd of about 100 people who waved American flags and Trump 2020 banners outside the stadium Friday night, according to WRAL.

The football coach told the Observer he didn’t have any concerns about safety if the game took place on either day, but said his players were disappointed about the school district’s decision Friday.

Staff writer Langston Wertz Jr. contributed

Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.