East Carolina helmet in a game between the East Carolina Pirates and the Central Florida Knights at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., on Oct. 1, 2016.
Greg Thompson—Icon Sportswire/AP
October 5, 2016 3:19 PM EDT

Students in the marching band at East Carolina University faced boos and racial slurs at a football game on Saturday as they protested racial discrimination, and then they were told by university officials that such protests would “not be tolerated moving forward.”

At the game against the University of Central Florida, 19 members of the school’s marching band took a knee during the national anthem, joining nationwide protests that began last month with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Students told local station WITN that people in the stadium crowd booed, spit on them and yelled racial slurs. Athletes across the country who have taken a knee have faced criticism from some who view the protest as disrespectful to law enforcement and military service members.

East Carolina University officials said Monday that they “regret the actions” of the marching band. In a letter—signed by the director of athletic bands, the director of the school of music and the dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication—officials said the protest “felt hurtful to many in our Pirate family and disrespectful to our country.”

“We have met with the band and the members have collectively reaffirmed their commitment to the unique privilege and responsibility that comes with wearing the uniform of the Marching Pirates,” the letter said. “College is about learning, and it is our expectation that the members of the Marching Pirates will learn from this experience and fulfill their responsibilities. While we affirm the right of all our students to express their opinions, protests of this nature by the Marching Pirates will not be tolerated moving forward.”

In response, several former presidents of the university’s Black Student Union on Tuesday called the letter “deplorable” and asked that it be retracted.

“Those statements stand in contrast to this university’s strong history of student activism and in opposition to the position of the Chancellor,” they wrote in a statement. “We will not allow East Carolina to go back to the days where the black student’s voice was marginalized. The actions of the East Carolina’s band leadership are deplorable.”

Monday’s letter appeared to contradict an earlier statement released after the game by Chancellor Cecil Staton, who said the university would “safeguard the right to free speech, petition and peaceful assembly.”

“As an institution of higher learning, East Carolina respects the rights of our students, staff and faculty to express their personal views,” Staton said in the statement, urging “respect for each other’s views.”

A university spokeswoman said Wednesday that Staton’s statement had not changed. The spokeswoman added that Staton was traveling and was not immediately able to clarify the school’s official stance on protests. It’s not clear what would happen if students chose to kneel again during a football game in the coming week.

Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

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