By Brin Balboa
LEMON GROVE, CA – 17-year-old Michael West came to play a homecoming football game as Stephen High School’s star quarterback on the night of November 9th, ready to win. Instead, he met expulsion.
Michael, also referred as “Freight train” by others, was expelled for taking a kneel during the national anthem. Michael said he kneeled in response to the racial injustices that plague the country.
Michael first kneeled during the national anthem in the last week of August and was suspended for six weeks. He returned to school for their homecoming game and took a kneel again.
“This is nothing about going against the government or the military,” Michael said. “This is about making sure that people of color are treated and respected like anyone else.”
Michael’s mother, Beth West, is supporting her son through this emotional time.
Lauren McIntire, spokesperson for Stephens High School, said West violated the school’s policy and was given multiple opportunities to correct his actions.
“Stephens is a great high school and we welcome diversity,” said McIntire. “All we’re asking is that you stop and you made a different choice in how you want to express them. The bathroom is appropriate, not the field.”
McIntire did not have the manual where it specifies how Michael violated school policy.
Beth West, mother of Michael, said the school is teaching their students not to express themselves and their opinions.
“We are fighting and we are taking this to court if we have to,” West said. “They can’t just destroy my son’s future because they don’t like what he’s doing on the field. This is America. We should be able to say what you want to say. If something is wrong, you should be able to be upfront and say what’s wrong, and they’re trying to take away his right to speak publicly.”
Jon Queenn, football coach of the high school, said the administration is not allowing Michael to exercise his First Amendment right. Queenn has been with the program for 10 years.
“I have not seen anywhere in the manual where it says players are prohibited from protesting,” Queenn said. “Unless there is some place in the manual where I have missed, I have never seen this. The school told me if I didn’t kick him off the team, I would be fired.”
Queenn said he expects to be fired at the end of the season or school year.
The West family received floods of support from the community, including the church they regularly attend. The Reverend George Johnson reached out to Michael and his family after reading the news.
“This young man needs spiritual guidance in this situation,” Johnson said. “It’s really sad that schools are treating our young, particularly African-American men, this way. I want to let him know he is not alone. He may have teammates on the field, but he also has teammates in life.”
Johnson organized a march in response to the events. It will be held on Saturday, November 17th in front of Stephens High School.
“We’re going to show them that black is strong, black is proud, black is dynamic and black is here,” Johnson said. “We’re going to stop this injustice.”
Michael is a 4.0 student who has never gotten into trouble and is well liked by his teammates, according to Queenn. His family is concerned that expulsion could prevent Michael from earning a college scholarship.
“This is going to have a huge impact on my ability to help support my family,” Queenn said. “With expulsion, that may make it more difficult for colleges to take a chance on me. This means that I may go from playing division one to something that’s a lot lower, which is going to hinder my ability to go pro. It’s going to impact me economically and emotionally.”
McIntire said the school welcomes conversation to amend the situation. She said the school made offers to sit down with the family again.
“We are trying to be the adult in the room,” McIntire said. “We’re asking for another opportunity to sit down because we want to unify. We are a school and it comes down to a teaching moment.”
The family and their supporters said they do not want to talk, but see action instead.
“We are tired of talking,” Johnson said. “It’s time for action. Let this be a teaching moment. Don’t take away this boy’s future.”
The West family is taking legal action against the school on grounds that Michael’s first amendment rights were violated.
Lisa Gibbs, American Civil Liberties Union youth director for San Diego and Imperial counties, is counseling the family during this process.
“We think it is a violation of his constitutional rights of freedom of speech and we are involved in this case to protect his right,” Gibbs said. “We plan to represent him in court and file legal suit against the school district.”