A Pasco County family whose first grader was reprimanded in September for taking a knee while his classmates recited the Pledge of Allegiance has sued the school district, alleging the boy's teacher violated his constitutional rights.
Eugenia McDowell complained of her son Kaden's treatment soon after receiving a message from teacher Julie Darland saying the class was learning what it means to be a good citizen, and that included standing for the pledge.
But when she sought to meet with the teacher, McDowell was refused that audience, and the teacher asked that Kaden be moved to a different classroom.
"Her request to utilize what occurred as a teachable moment … was essentially met with derision," said Jack Gordon, McDowell's lawyer. "A meaningful public debate would have been a great thing. But that wasn't offered to her."
McDowell alerted the district of her intent to sue six months ago, as required by law. Now, Gordon said, the time is ripe and the suit is in play.
The family has asked for damages. But Gordon acknowledged that putting a price tag on whether someone's constitutional rights have been violated is not straightforward.
So the McDowells also have asked for a judge to declare that the teacher and school were wrong in failing to allow Kaden to kneel quietly while other children spoke the pledge.
Gordon cited the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides for freedom of speech, and to Florida statute, which requires schools to inform families of their right not to participate in the pledge.
"Mrs. McDowell was not provided that information," Gordon said.
Only after her son's incident did the school district administration advise all schools to allow children to kneel during the pledge and the national anthem, if they wished.
School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso and district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said they had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.
Gordon said he was hopeful the end result would be one where children's rights are upheld, and the public school system rewards rather than admonishes them for independent thinking.