Cornell HS cheerleaders' decision to kneel during national anthem upsets vets

CORAOPOLIS, Pa. — Several high school cheerleaders' decision to take a knee Friday night while a VFW Color Guard performed at Cornell High School isn’t sitting well with some, especially military veterans.

The gesture has made headlines in recent weeks because of NFL player Colin Kaepernick who has refused to stand while the national anthem is played in protest of racial injustice.

“They don't know what they are doing, them young kids. They don't know what they are doing,” WWII Army veteran Danny Larocco told Channel 11 News.

Larocco said he didn’t take the photo of the cheerleaders kneeling that has circulated online, but he was there in-person. He told Channel 11 News that he and his fellow veterans of VFW 402 in Coraopolis were invited to present the colors before the game.

Instead of standing like everyone else on the field and in the stands 12 out of 15 cheerleaders knelt, Larocco said.

“I was 16 when I enlisted, fighting Japanese. To see them do that and disgrace Coraopolis and that school, it made me sick,” the military veteran said.

Cornell School District Superintendent Aaron Thomas, however, said he’s standing by his students’ decision to take a knee.

“This is a classic case that dates back to the ‘60s, and symbolic speech is protected speech,” he said.

Thomas said the district supports the students' right to free speech, and he told Channel 11 News on Tuesday that he was aware some in the cheerleading squad were going to take a knee in a public protest. Thomas, though, said he’s the first to admit their timing could have been better.

“I apologize to those individuals on Friday night that I saw. Ideally could this have happened on another night? Yeah, but it happened on the night that it did (and) it created healthy discussion within (the) walls of our building,” the superintendent said.

Two of the cheerleaders spoke with Channel 11 News about their decision to kneel.

“We never meant to disrespect them in any type of way,” one of the girls said.

“It's like a cry for help. Things are happening in America. We don't feel like singing the national anthem. We don't sing it with pride,” the other girl said.

The cheerleaders, who are both seniors at Cornell High School, said they have been getting physical threats over their peaceful protest.

“I think that people need to understand whether we agree or disagree, not all of America is completely equal,” one of the cheerleaders said.

Despite the girls’ apology and explanation for their actions, Larocco said Wednesday that he still thinks the act was disrespectful to those who have fought for the U.S.

“My friends and everybody else that served in the service, they have that right to be respected. We love our flag very much. We fought for it,” he said. “You want to protest? Do a march or something like that, but don't do it to degrade the national anthem and our country.”

The district’s superintendent said he cannot predict whether the cheerleaders will continue their protest at the next home game, but he said to be on the safe side, security will be increased.