ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (WVEC) -- A string of complaints and outrage followed a Facebook picture that was shared by a candidate for Pasquotank County Sheriff.
That candidate, 22-year law enforcement veteran, Brent McKecuen, defended himself.
It all started innocently enough: a man running for sheriff in Pasquotank County giving campaign sweatshirts to supporters.
"I got a message the other day asking if her girls on the cheerleading squad could get them," he said.
The person who messaged McKecuen was the cheerleading coach at River Road Middle School.
The team donated money to his campaign, and he gave sweatshirts to the coach.
The coach took a picture of the cheerleaders wearing the sweatshirts in the school gym during practice and it was shared on McKecuen's campaign Facebook page.
"At that time I was flattered by the support and I took that picture and reposted it on my personal Facebook page," McKecuen told 13News Now.
This drew complaints from different people online because it violated the School Board's policy governing Employee Political Activities (Code #7720).
According to that Elizabeth City Pasquotank Public Schools policy, political activity by employees must not take place during school time.
McKecuen claimed he had no prior knowledge this was going to happen, nor did he ask for any type of endorsement.
He was told about the violation the next day.
"At that time, I immediately removed it from my Facebook page, personal and campaign," he said. "Then started making some calls to make sure there was anything I needed to do more."
A school official said in a statement that an investigation showed "no evidence the students were coerced to get the sweatshirts" or take the picture.
The statement also said:
"Deputy McKecuen has been a supporter of the cheerleading team, is usually present at the games, and provides concessions for some of the sport activities at the school. Apparently the members of the cheerleading team wanted to show their support for him and this is how they chose to do so."
"I'm trying to run a clean honest campaign," he said.
A mother of one of the cheerleaders agreed and posted a response to the candidate's Facebook apology:
"The cheer team was excited to support a fellow classmates dad and someone they see regular(ly) donating his time to the school. It was truly done in innocence by the cheerleaders... and I was proud of them for it!"
"I apologize to the school system as well to the cheerleaders," McKecuen said.
McKecuen told 13News Now the current sheriff's investigation showed no laws were broken.
The candidate said he returned the $51 donation that he got from the cheerleaders.
The district said the cheer coach has since resigned from her position.
Read the school's full statement:
"Our investigation revealed that the genesis of this incident was a conversation between the cheerleading coach and Deputy McKeceun that occurred at a practice when Deputy McKeceun delivered a sweatshirt to the coach. Team members observed this and asked about getting their own sweatshirt saying "McKecuen for Sheriff". The coach told them that they could get one for a contribution of $5.00. Nearly all of the cheer members said they wanted one and would bring in money to get their own sweatshirt from the coach.
According to information received during the investigation, there is no evidence indicating that the coach pressured, coerced or directed the students to obtain one of the sweatshirts. There is no evidence indicating that the coach pressured, coerced or directed the students to pose for or join in the picture. The evidence indicates that the members of the team asked the coach to take the picture. The investigation also verified that the coach told at least one parent, and possibly more parents, about the sweatshirts, their purpose and their cost, but also emphasized that the sweatshirts were "not mandatory."
Also, during the school's investigation, several of the parents indicated that their children asked them for money to purchase a sweatshirt but they did not know what the message would be or what the purchase would be for at that time. The school's administration was able to talk with 12 of the 13 parents whose children are on the team. Some of the students apparently used their own money and did not ask their parents for the money or tell them about the purchase at that time. None of the information received during the investigation indicated that any of the parents felt or sensed any degree of coercion or pressure to purchase a sweatshirt, let alone to support any particular candidate for elective office. Again, it was evident that at least one parent received a communication explaining the opportunity to purchase a sweatshirt, and we believe communication was shared with other parents as well.
Deputy McKecuen has been a supporter of the cheerleading team, is usually present at the games, and provides concessions for some of the sport activities at the school. Apparently the members of the cheerleading team wanted to show their support for him and this is how they chose to do so.
The photo was not posted as a political statement or endorsement by School administration. The photo was not posted or endorsed by action of the Board of Education.
We believe that School administration learned that the photo had been posted on Facebook on the same day it was posted. Steps were taken to have it removed and it was, in fact removed, by the individual who posted it on the same day School administration learned of the photo. The decision to remove the photo was NOT made or initiated by Facebook nor has any official from Facebook communicated to the Schools that the photo was judged "inappropriate" or in violation of Facebook standards.
Based on the timing and location of the photo, and the fact that it was displayed publicly, it was determined that violation occurred of the Board's policy governing Employee Political Activities (Code #7720). The coach has since resigned from their coaching position."