Harnett County replaces principal over Trump jersey incident

National attention over student’s free speech leads district to take action

U.S. President Donald J. Trump (C) gestures at the podium in front of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (L) and Speaker of the House U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) during his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress inside the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Win McNamee/Pool

ANGIER, N.C. — The principal at the center of a controversy over a student’s Trump shirt has been replaced. Cindy Gordon, the now former head of Harnett Central High School, decided to approach student Matthew Collins at a football game and have him remove a shirt with the 45th president’s name on the back.

The students had been encouraged to wear patriotic clothing to a themed home football game. Collins chose to wear a jersey that a family friend bought him. It had stars and stripes on the sleeves, big letters saying “USA” across the front and an image of the torch from the Statue of Liberty. The problem for some parents attending the game, who complained to school administrators, was it also had the word “Trump” across the back of the jersey and the No. 45, also a reference to the president.

In a tearful interview with ABC 11, Mike Collins, Matthew’s father, says that it seemed appropriate to him for a patriotic-themed event and his son felt “humiliated” and left the event. Mike Collins said although he is a Democrat, Donald Trump is the president and his son shouldn’t have been forced to remove the shirt.

After receiving a lot of backlash from the community, as well as national attention from social media, the Harnett County School System released a statement announcing leadership changes at their schools.

“Effective immediately, Ms. Catherine Jones, current principal at Harnett Primary, will serve as principal at Harnett Central High School,” the statement said. “Harnett County Schools leadership appreciates all the patience of families, students, and the community during this process. Again, we want to emphasize that Harnett County Schools supports and affirms students’ rights to express themselves — including wearing clothing expressing political messages or supporting political candidates or officeholders — in ways that are not expected to disrupt school or school events.”

Last year, a campus free speech bill passed in North Carolina focusing on state-run universities. This and other policies have resulted in the state having the most “green lit” campuses in the United States, with eight such schools — according to campus free speech organization FIRE.

While the incident in Angier over the Trump jersey is at a high school, not a college, and the rules differ quite a bit for these schools, FIRE executive director Robert Shibling told the North State Journal that free expression in an educational environment is still important no matter the age of the student.

“Nearly 50 years ago, in a case where a student wished to wear a black armband to a public school to protest the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court affirmed that students do not lose their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate,” Shibling told the NSJ. “While high schools retain the right to regulate clothing that causes, or could reasonably cause, a disruption to students’ education, there’s virtually no possibility that a court would find this particular request to be reasonable — and it appears that the Harnett County school system agrees.”

The Collins family indicates they are not planning to take any legal action on the matter.