A conflict over the Pledge

Teachers, students' free-speech rights clash in the classroom

November 30, 2005|By LIZ BOWIE | LIZ BOWIE,SUN REPORTER

On the first day of school this fall, when all the students around her stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, an 11th-grade girl at Chesapeake High School in Essex stayed seated and silent. But her teacher ordered her to stand, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is waging a campaign to draw attention to students' First Amendment rights.

ACLU officials wrote Maryland school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick yesterday to alert her to what they say are a growing number of complaints they are receiving from students who are being harassed by teachers when they refuse to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Richard Griffiths, an ACLU attorney, said students have a right to decline. He said the organization is asking Grasmick to help educate teachers about that right and to reverse what he called "a disturbing trend emerging in Maryland's public schools."

Grasmick had no comment on the letter. A spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education said officials were in the process of reviewing it.

The ACLU pointed to several examples, including the one in Baltimore County. The girl's mother, Claudette Smith, declined to give her daughter's name but said the girl chose not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance for religious reasons.

Smith said she had been in contact with the principal several times and each time was assured that her daughter would not be required to stand. But the issue surfaced again two weeks ago when a teacher walking past the classroom during the Pledge of Allegiance yelled to her daughter to stand up. "This woman started hollering and screaming at my child," Smith said. "It is very upsetting to her to be singled out."

At that point, Smith said, she called the ACLU.

Ted Pugh, a ninth-grader at Leonardtown High School in Southern Maryland, contacted the ACLU after he saw his teacher tell one of his good friends that he would have to stand during homeroom to recite the Pledge.

Pugh was standing, but he believed his teacher was wrong. With help from his father, he began researching the issue, looking at Maryland law and a Supreme Court decision.

Another time, Pugh said, the teacher told his friend she didn't care if he recited the Pledge or put his hand over his heart, but he did have to stand. He then wrote to a number of organizations, including the U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights, telling them what had happened. It was the ACLU that wrote back.

At first, he said, he was nervous about challenging the teacher or sitting in unity with his friend. His mother, Avdokia Pugh, said her son is an honors student and is not opposed to the Pledge but believes there is a matter of principle involved.

Yesterday, he decided to join his friend and remained seated for the first time.

"We are not trying to change every student's mind, we just want to preserve our rights," Ted Pugh said. "If they want to stand, they can stand. But if we don't want to stand, then we don't have to stand."

Calls to the principal of Leonardtown High School in St. Mary's County and to Chesapeake High School in Baltimore County were not returned.

The ACLU's Griffiths said that most of the time, principals and administrators apologize when cases are brought to their attention. "The law is absolutely crystal-clear," he said. "It is just that no one seems to know it." He said the organization hopes Grasmick will spread the word, and it also has sent letters to all the state's local school superintendents.

Many educators, he said, "could use more education about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights."

ACLU officials believe that part of the increase in the number of complaints has to do with emotions over the war in Iraq and division over Bush administration policies. They said they are receiving two complaints a month about free speech in schools, about half of which involve language on T-shirts that teachers find objectionable.

In Carroll County, a senior at Century High School said last year he was held in the principal's office after he refused to remove a T-shirt, Griffiths said. On the front, the youth had written a quote he attributed to Bush: "They misunderestimated me."

On the back he had written, "Bush ... the American terrorist." Griffiths declined to identify the student because he joined the military after graduating and fears he would get in trouble if it were known he had criticized the president.

Carroll County school administrators said yesterday they could not confirm the story. The school's principal did not return a phone call.

Assistant Superintendent for Administration Stephen Guthrie did say that the Carroll school system continues "to reinforce that students have First Amendment rights," but officials also reserve the right to require a student to remove a piece of apparel when it could cause "a disruption" in the school day.liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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