BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — Many people around the world have stood up for Ukraine amid its war with Russia. In the New River Valley, the Blacksburg High School girls lacrosse team wanted to wear ‘Pray for Peace’ shirts supporting Ukraine, as well as the team’s coach.

It all started when the girls on the lacrosse team wanted to support their coach after she spent 10 summers volunteering in Ukraine.

“This is something we wanted to do together as a team,” said Elise Levison, captain of the Blacksburg High School girls lacrosse team.

Even with the positive nature behind the shirts, the team was quickly turned down by the members of the Montgomery County School Board, who thought the shirts could be interpreted as religious and political.

“They were told they were not allowed to do that again. We first thought it was about the word ‘pray,'” said Clare Levison, Elise’s mother.

Members of the Blacksburg High School girls lacrosse team wearing ‘Pray for Peace’ t-shirts. (Photo courtesy: Clare Levison)

Clare says she wrote the school board, asking them to change ‘Pray for Peace’ to ‘Play for Peace.’ They told her the issue was that the word ‘peace’ was political.

At the school board meeting on April 5, Clare spoke up during the public address section, questioning the board members on their decision and explaining why peace is important.

“In these times of an ever-growing political divide, it seems that peace might be the one thing we can still agree on,” said Clare. “Yet the administration of MCPS wishes to remain neutral on praying, playing, or even standing for peace.”

Montgomery County School Board Chair Sue Kass responded by saying that not everyone prays and not everybody wants to have that on their shirts.

However, Montgomery County Public Schools’ interim superintendent, Annie Whitaker, had more to say.

“There isn’t really a reason within a sports team to be wearing school issue uniforms that are promoting anything other than the sport,” said Whitaker.

She added that the purpose of an athletic team is playing sports.

Near the end of the meeting, though, Kass and another school board member, Mark Cherbaka, gave Whitaker some pushback.

Kass announced that she liked the idea of changing the shirts to ‘Play for Peace.’

“I feel like we are at a point where everything could be political,” Cherbaka stated. “I just don’t want to get to a point where we are shutting down every single thing.”

Even with all the controversy, the Levison’s say they will continue to fight to allow the team to wear the ‘Pray for Peace’ shirts

“Nobody wants a war to take place and really we just wanted to bring some sort of light to the situation and show support,” said Elise.

Members of the Blacksburg High School girls lacrosse team wearing ‘Pray for Peace’ t-shirts during practice. (Photo courtesy: Clare Levison)

Elise’s mother had a more direct response for the school board.

“I just can’t believe that the interim superintendent and the school board are actually saying that there is a legitimate argument that could be made in favor of genocide,” said Clare.

WFXR News’ Kelsey Jean-Baptiste reached out to the school district about the controversy over the team’s shirts. Brenda Drake, director of Communications and Community Relations for Montgomery County Public Schools, sent a joint statement from Kass and Whitaker:

“The concerns about the lacrosse team warmups are not related to student speech as the team members did not initiate the discussion or purchase the shirts. The role of the School Board is to implement our policies in an unbiased way. Staff-led activism is a topic our Board has been discussing throughout the year, including flags, posters, and clothing that show support for specific groups or issues.   

It is not permissible for school-issued, staff-sponsored apparel to promote specific causes, groups, or beliefs. “

Montogomery County Public Schools

Both the Levison’s say they are still hoping the school board members will change their minds.

In the meantime, you can still purchase the ‘Pray for Peace’ shirts online to show support for the Blacksburg High School girls lacrosse team and Ukraine. All proceeds from the shirts will go to ‘Friends of Ukraine,’ the organization the team’s coach worked with when she volunteered at Ukrainian orphanages.