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Local cheerleader criticized for kneeling during anthem

Alyssa Pressler
  • A photo of a cheerleader for Northeastern School District has gone viral locally.
  • The girl was photographed kneeling during the national anthem, sparking debate.

A photograph of a Northeastern High School cheerleader kneeling during the national anthem at a local basketball game has sparked debate online — with some vilifying the teen and others defending her right to protest.

In response, the district issued a statement on its website recognizing "each student's right to express him/herself, provided such expression complies with policy and state and federal regulations."

A Northeastern School District cheerleader, Ajani Powell, kneels during the National Anthem at a recent basketball game.

Ajani Powell's gesture during Friday's game evoked images of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began "taking a knee" during the national anthem this football season to protest police brutality against minorities.

The district's statement says it encourages all students to be respectful of the country and the community, but that the right to stand, sit or kneel during the national anthem is an "individual choice protected by the First Amendment."

Freelance photographer Curt Werner took the photo of Ajani and posted it on Facebook Saturday. Since then, the original image has been shared more than 600 times and has accumulated more than 300 comments.

On her Facebook page, Ajani stated she has knelt during the national anthem during basketball and football games for quite some time.

Some commenters stood up for the cheerleader's right to kneel during the anthem while others called it disrespectful to the men and women who serve in the military.

Though Ajani is only in high school, many have called her names in their comments, threatened her and made racial slurs. Some have called for the young cheerleader to be deported, though she appears to be a citizen of the U.S. A few of these comments have been deleted.

Anthony Ruth, a 21-year-old Manchester Township resident who graduated from Northeastern High School, said he was supportive of what Ajani was trying to do. She was taking a stand for what she believed in, which was her right, he said.

His biggest issue with the photos was the threats she was receiving.

"There are all of these grown people throwing hate at a little girl," he said, referencing a comment that called the cheerleader the N-word. "This is what I'm talking about right there. That's why she's doing what she's doing."

Melissa Melendez, who said she is a taxpayer in the district, took issue, saying her tax dollars were "not for this," referring to Ajani's protest. She also felt it was disrespectful to those who serve in the military, pointing to her own family members who have done so.

"I'm very big on our rights and everyone's rights," she wrote in a Facebook message. "But we had many lives lost for these freedoms."

Other schools in the state have dealt with similar situations. In September, Manheim Township High School in Lancaster County had to reword an announcement that initially threatened to kick out people who did not stand for the national anthem at the school's games.

Lancaster school reconsiders national anthem warning

There have been increased incidents of people standing or sitting across the nation during the national anthem after Kaepernick began doing so. Many commentators on the photo claimed Ajani was simply copying Kaepernick without understanding why.

Requests for comment from Ajani were not answered.