Standing Up for the Right to Sit Down: ACLU of Maryland Defends Student Harassed by Teacher for Not Standing for Pledge

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
February 23, 2010 12:00 am

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GERMANTOWN, MD – Despite free speech guarantees in the Bill of Rights, state law, and in the Montgomery County School System’s student guide, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland (ACLU) has had to take action on behalf of a middle school student who was harassed and humiliated by a teacher for declining to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In a letter sent February 5 to Khadija F. Barkley, Acting Principal of Roberto Clemente Middle School, the ACLU details why what was done to the traumatized student was wrong and humiliating, and seeks an apology and education on the meaning and importance of the First Amendment.

“The law is crystal clear that a public school cannot embarrass or harass a student for maintaining a respectful silence during the Pledge of Allegiance,” said Ajmel Quereshi, an attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. “While expression of patriotism in unsettling times is a worthy and admirable emotion, the Supreme Court says that patriotism is best honored by venerating the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution and not by punishing or ridiculing those whose views might differ from our own.”

On January 27, a thirteen-year-old at Roberto Clemente Middle School chose neither to stand nor to speak during the school’s daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Instead, she sat quietly while students recited the Pledge. Her teacher demanded she stand for the Pledge. When she did not stand, the teacher ordered her to leave the classroom and stand out in the hall. He threatened to give her detention for refusing to stand for the Pledge, and sent her to the counselor’s office. The next day, the student again declined to stand for the pledge. The teacher then called upon two school police officers to escort her out of the classroom and to the school counselor’s office. When the student’s mother reached out to an assistant principal for help in dealing with the teacher’s abusive and improper actions, the official said her daughter should instead apologize for her “defiance.” The student did apologize, twice.

However, the right of a student to refrain from participating during the Pledge has been settled law since 1943, when the Supreme Court held that students could not be forced to salute the flag. As the Court put it then, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” Here in Maryland, the State Court of Appeals, in 1871, struck down as unconstitutional a state law that required students to salute the flag. Maryland law now explicitly exempts from the Pledge of Allegiance “any student or teacher who wishes to be excused.”

In addition, the Montgomery County school system explicitly acknowledges the student’s right to act as she did in the student handbook provision concerning “Patriotic Exercises”:

You will have the opportunity to participate in and/or watch patriotic exercises in school.

You cannot be required to say a pledge, sing an anthem, or take part in patriotic exercises. No one will be permitted to intentionally embarrass you if you choose not to participate.

The young girl was so traumatized by her teacher’s humiliating and inappropriate reaction, that the she has not felt comfortable returning to school until the situation is addressed. Faced with the school’s unwillingness to acknowledge that the teacher had acted improperly, the mother contacted the ACLU for assistance. Even more shockingly, following the ACLU’s letter to the acting principal pointing out the law, and seeking an apology and explanation to the class to ease the girl’s return, the school system’s lawyer responded that school officials would not meet with the mother if she brought an ACLU lawyer to the meeting.

Quereshi noted that “every other school system has moved quickly to resolve Pledge of Allegiance issues when the ACLU has contacted them on behalf of students. It is appalling that, in this case, the school is refusing to meet to resolve the issue, and thus keeping the traumatized victim out of school even longer than necessary.”

The ACLU of Maryland’s letter asks that the teacher personally apologize to the student, and promise to respect her right to respectfully dissent in the future. We further request that the assistant principal and teacher review with the class that witnessed this incident the county school policy on patriotic exercise, and explain that trying to force a student to salute the flag is wrong, and it should never have occurred. It is our hope that this incident can be used as an educational opportunity for both students and teachers – as has been done in other Maryland schools when Pledge issues have arisen.

Go online to read the ACLU’s letter:

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