Before the Watkins Mill High School football team in Gaithersburg, Maryland, began its new season, the act of protest by the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to sit, then kneel, during the national anthem had sparked widespread commentary and criticism. Yet for Brian McNeary, a senior at Watkins Mill, organizing his team to take a knee wasn’t due to external inspiration, but rather frustration—with inequality, racism, and the unfair treatment of people of color.

McNeary, 16, started the conversation with his teammates about kneeling for the anthem after losing a close friend to street violence in Chicago. “I wasn’t angry at the man who killed [him] because that’s the only life he knew,” McNeary said. “The problem is … why do we turn a blind eye to [poverty-stricken, violence-plagued communities] and police brutality?”

With the support of the coach and school community—some 75 percent of the Watkins Mill student body is black or Hispanic—McNeary and the Wolverines kneeled for a recent game against the majority-white Damascus High School, garnering strong disapproval from some fans and players on the opposing team. Others, including military veterans, defended the team’s right to express their beliefs. The players felt the fallout from the protest immediately, and the reverberations continue in the Montgomery County, Maryland, school district.

Across the country, students are sitting, kneeling, and dissenting from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and standing for the national anthem. Many of these acts coincide with Kaepernick’s refusal to stand and show pride for what he described as “a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” The objection to patriotic gestures, though, has a long, complicated history in public schools—and the current crop of youthful objectors has reignited a fresh debate on patriotism, protest, and student rights.

In just the last month alone: A high-school football player in Massachusetts was reportedly suspended for one game after kneeling during the national anthem and quickly reinstated after a swift social-media response; a 14-year-old Native American girl in California who has refused to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance since elementary school out of respect for her culture lost points off her class grade for participation; a 15-year-old in suburban Chicago was allegedly pulled out of his seat when he also chose to remain seated for the Pledge in Spanish class; and in Collier County School District in southern Florida, a high-school principal said that students would “be sent home” if they didn’t stand for the national anthem.  

Charles C. Haynes, the founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., said there has been an uptick in teachers and administrators seeking guidance for what’s permissible regarding the Pledge and Anthem, which he partly attributes to the Kaepernick controversy. Haynes said that he carefully explains the law—“students have the right to opt out … [no one] can make them stand or punish them or make them feel ostracized”—but that sometimes it’s a tough sell. “There's this feeling [from educators] that ‘We just can't let them get away with that; it's disrespectful to America.’”

According to Haynes, there are 45 state statutes requiring patriotic exercises in schools—the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, or both. Iowa, Hawaii, Nebraska, Vermont, and Wyoming are the only states without a law dictating the practice. While the vast majority of states require recitation of the pledge at some time during the day, in a small number of cases the specifics vary, such as California where it’s only mandatory in elementary school, and Ohio and North Dakota, where statutes say it’s optional.  

Further muddying the picture is a World War II-era U.S. Supreme Court decision, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, that found it unconstitutional under the First Amendment to force students to salute the flag and participate in patriotic rituals. The lawsuit involved two elementary-school girls in West Virginia who, as Jehovah's Witnesses, were forbidden to pledge allegiance to the American flag because of religious beliefs. The 1943 ruling paved the way for students to opt out of reciting the pledge by establishing that government could not coerce people to salute or pledge to patriotic symbols, as it was a violation of their constitutionally protected free-speech rights.

Some 70 years later, it’s almost universally understood by school officials that they have to allow students to excuse themselves from these exercises, Haynes said. Still, the tension remains between knowing the law and obeying it. “There’s always been an undercurrent about this,” he said, noting that the resentment and pushback to the Barnette decision has lasted for decades; many school officials, Haynes added, “remain angry about it and think it's an insult to the flag and to the country when … students dissent.”

The national symbolism of the pledge and anthem runs deep, and not all agree that students should be part of this wave of protests. The conservative New York Times commentator David Brooks discouraged high-school football players from kneeling for the anthem in a recent column—branding it “extremely counterproductive” and likening the act of standing and singing to a “foundational creed” with a unifying influence. This expectation, however, can lead to a false unity, said Haynes, the First Amendment scholar, who cautioned that standing for the anthem or saluting the flag as sacred acts, in and of themselves, are little more than idolatry. “The irony [of stipulating that students stand] is that … the Pledge [and] the national anthem are symbols for the right to dissent, the right to exercise your conscience.”

Kierra Booker, 17, a black student at the predominantly white Damascus High School, was at the game when Watkins Mill kneeled for the national anthem, eliciting boos and what she called a “terrible reaction” in her school’s student section. Booker related strongly to the silent protest: For her, it sent a resounding message. “Growing up here I know what it feels like to be followed in a grocery store right down the street from where you live; I know how people look at you when you tell them that you are in a higher class than them or you scored higher on the test. I've experienced it all,” she said. “When conversations about the … game came up most of the students [at Damascus] didn't take it well because they don't see the injustices … they don't experience systematic racism.”

Booker credits Jennifer Webster, Damascus’s principal, for urging students and parents to “respect one another’s decisions … and [to] learn from each other” by sending out letters before and after the football game to the entire school community. In solidarity with the Watkins Mill players, Booker and Natalia Ceron-Parra, 17, also a senior at Damascus, sat down in the stands during the playing of the anthem. Ceron-Parra and Booker are leaders in the school’s Minority Scholars Program—a district-wide initiative for students of color—and consider the student-driven protests a platform for dialogue and action. “I believe that enough is enough,” said Booker, stressing that for her generation “having a voice on important matters like this is so important.”

Similarly to Damascus, in some public schools, administrators like Nadia Lopez are successfully finding a balance. Lopez is the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn—a high-poverty, segregated neighborhood in New York City. Mott Hall began a social-justice class for its middle-school students this past summer, exploring strategies to spread the message of racial injustice across mass media. The national anthem protests were added to the syllabus “because our children are talked to but never engaged to share their thoughts, ideas, [or] wonderings,” said Lopez, who was famously featured on the “Humans of New York” blog and, subsequently, an Atlantic documentary. None of her youngsters have opted out of the anthem or pledge, but Lopez sees taking such a personal stand as necessary and acceptable “in a world that often makes them feel invisible.”

For some school-age dissenters, the resistance has only made them more determined: They’re using the criticism to fuel their fight for justice, one of the bedrock principles of the patriotic acts in dispute.

“Some people say the national anthem and the football field is the wrong way to protest and … the wrong time,” said McNeary, the activist-minded football player. “But if not now, then when is the best time? There's never a ‘best time’ to protest, and the people who say now isn't the time just mean there's never a time.”