Mom says her 6-year-old son was 'silenced' by a teacher after he knelt for the Pledge of Allegiance
WESLEY CHAPEL — Eugenia McDowell got the text message late Monday evening, while cooking for her family.
Her youngest son, a 6-year-old first grader at Wiregrass Elementary School in Pasco County, had taken a knee that morning as his class recited the Pledge of Allegiance. It wasn’t something planned — the boy never told his parents he might do so — but in their household, it wasn’t completely out-of-the-blue, either.
The child’s two older brothers had dropped to their knees a year ago during the national anthem at their high school football game. He and his family avidly follow football, where the topic of silent protest mushroomed over the weekend after President Donald Trump’s pronouncements on the subject. And they regularly watch and discuss the news, including stories about racial justice.
What bothered McDowell, an operations manager who moved to the area three years ago, was the teacher’s response, which she considered biased, condescending and on the verge of threatening.
In it, the teacher wrote that she told the boy that his class is learning about “what it means to be a good citizen.” That means “respecting the United States of America and our country symbols and showing loyalty and patriotism,” the teacher wrote, “and that we stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I know it’s a sensitive issue but I wanted to make you aware. Thanks.”
In her home, McDowell said, they advocate thinking for yourself and coming up with your own opinion. The teacher, she said, “took away his potential to do that, if I leave it unaddressed.”
The boy immediately believed he was in trouble for his action, though principal Steve Williams stressed that neither the boy nor his teacher was punished. McDowell worried that the incident would leave her son less willing to speak his mind, for fear of the adult reaction.
“It teaches him to be silent,” she said. “That’s why I am speaking out. No more silencing.”
Experts on student rights in school said the family has a valid point, to a degree.
For starters, they said, students attending public schools have a much stronger position to assert their freedom of speech than do professional athletes.
A Tampa Bay Buccaneers player, for example, is an employee of a private company that can set its terms of engagement. The children benefit from “working” in a government entity, which is barred in the U.S. Constitution from abridging public speech.
As a result, students have a clear right, based on a 1940s Supreme Court case, to not participate in the Pledge of Allegiance.
“They can sit there quietly, respectfully. But they don’t have to pledge allegiance to the flag,” said Mat Staver, founder of the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, a religious rights organization. “That has been a long-standing case.”
He acknowledged that Florida law allows school districts to ask for a parent letter excusing their children from participating, and that schools must then follow that direction. But Staver also suggested that the absence of such a letter would not likely disqualify a student from exercising his First Amendment rights.
“Even if he’s six,” Staver said.
A complicating factor arises, though, if the child engages in counter-speech — spoken or silent, such as taking a knee. That freedom is more clear outside the classroom than inside it, said Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer with the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.
“The line that the Supreme Court has drawn is where your speech or conduct substantially disrupts the operation of school,” said LoMonte, who previously ran the Student Press Law Center. “And I don’t think the disruption is five other people also kneel.”
The right to protest outside the classroom “is actually stronger than inside the classroom,” Staver said.
Then comes the question of whether the teacher overstepped in telling her student that being a good citizen means standing for the pledge.
Much comes down to the details, LoMonte explained.
If the teacher made such comments loudly in front of the entire class, holding the child up to embarrassment and ridicule, “That’s coercion,” he said.
If it came privately, it would be less so.
The child’s age could also come into play.
A 17-year-old more likely has the fortitude to stand up to a teacher than a 6-year-old, after all.
“A very young child probably thinks he is in danger of being punished,” LoMonte said. “You could argue that any expression of official disapproval crosses the line for a young child.”
Pasco County assistant superintendent Kevin Shibley, who’s also a lawyer, made that point clear to administrators in a Wednesday memo.
He advised them that “kneeling or other non-disruptive forms of non-participation should generally be considered as permissible alternatives” to the traditional recitation of the pledge.
Furthermore, Shibley added, district policy prohibits staff from intimidating students or coercing them to participate in the pledge.
“This means that staff should avoid public confrontations with students regarding their choice to exercise their rights,” he wrote. “Once a student initially presents themselves as electing to refrain from participation in the Pledge, staff should allow the student to respectfully and silently refrain from participation and report the matter to school administration at the next reasonable opportunity.”
That didn’t happen for McDowell’s son. She asked that he be transferred to a different teacher, who had not confronted him, and that occurred Wednesday.
She also met with the school principal, hoping to generate a meaningful conversation about the way black children are treated in school. McDowell was hoping for an apology from the teacher, so her son knows he did not act inappropriately.
The issue is much deeper than respecting the flag, said McDowell, who plans to sing the national anthem at her older son’s high school football game this week.
She spoke about asking Florida lawmakers to clarify the statute governing patriotic activities in public schools. She suggested that students should not require permission to take advantage of their freedoms of speech and peaceful protest.
State Sen. Doug Broxson, the Panhandle Republican who most recently pushed amendments to that law, said he agreed that Florida has societal issues, "especially in the area of justice." He wondered, though, whether discussions about the U.S. flag were the right venue to address those concerns.
He suggested that the conversation is based on an "unfortunate misunderstanding" of what it means to say the Pledge. It should be a symbol that all Americans are in it together with shared values and a unity of purpose, even through disagreements, Broxson said.
"The flag is not the way to approach it," he said.
McDowell said she hoped to get past the symbols, too.
“I just want real change,” she said. “At the root, something is wrong.”
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.