Students at California High School in San Ramon decided at a recent pep rally that the national anthem will no longer be played, bucking tradition and drawing the school into a national controversy about what and whom the anthem represents.
At the start of a winter pep rally Jan. 19, the anthem wasn’t performed. No announcement was made and the rally started with competitions between different grades, organized cheers and other activities intended to pump up students.
Dennis Fiorentinos, 18, a senior at California High, was one of a handful of people who noticed.
“They’ve always played the national anthem, so I thought maybe they just forgot, but then I realized there’s no way they just forgot the national anthem,” Fiorentinos told The Chronicle.
He inquired about the anthem’s absence and learned that the Associated Student Body and other student leaders had decided to remove it from the rally — something Fiorentinos views as an overreach.
On Feb. 9, Ariyana Kermanizadeh, president of the Associated Student Body, wrote a letter to The Californian, explaining that that the decision was motivated by concerns about the racial insensitivity of the anthem.
“A few weeks before the rally it was brought to our attention that the National Anthem’s third verse is outdated and racially insensitive,” Kermanizadeh wrote.
She referred specifically to a verse which is no longer performed: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave/ And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave.”
Kermanizadeh said in her letter that the student government is seeking to create an inclusive environment, regardless of tradition.
“I have said this before and I will say this again, that ASB stands for Associated Student Body, that means for all,” she wrote. “After learning about the third verse, the other ASB officers and I thought that this was completely unacceptable and must be removed from the rally.”
Fiorentinos said he respects the decision, even if he disagrees with it.
“I feel the unifying message that the national anthem gives off is important and that it’s important to respect our veterans who died and served protecting our freedoms,” Fiorentinos said. “Like the freedom to choose not play the anthem, it’s those freedoms that we owe much to men and women who died protecting them.”
Protests of the national anthem have spread across the country after former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee last year to protest police brutality. Other athletes across all sports have performed similar protests since that time, drawing the ire of President Donald Trump, who has argued that these athletes are disrespecting the flag.
Fiorentinos said that he’s most upset because there was no open process at California High School in decided to ban the anthem from rallies. In the coming days, Fiorentinos said, he would like to see a school-wide discussion that includes students, faculty and school board representatives.
School administrators referred questions to Elizabeth Graswich, director of communications for the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. Graswich emailed a statement to The Chronicle, emphasizing the students’ autonomy in making decisions on rallies.
“The students made their decision after learning that the third verse is seen as offensive to some groups,” Graswich wrote. “The ASB is committed to creating a school culture that is welcoming to all students.”
Sophie Haigney is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @SophieHaigney