SPRING HILL — The fourth-grader at Explorer K-8 School stood silently on Sept. 11, hands by his side, as his classmates recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
A Jehovah's Witness forbidden from worshiping objects, the boy's behavior was not unusual. He had never joined his peers in the ritual of placing his right hand on his heart. He had never spoken the words: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands . . ."
But that morning was different.
As the students recited, teacher Anne Daigle-McDonald took the boy's wrist and placed his hand over his heart. He protested, pulling his arm down and reminding her he was a Jehovah's Witness.
"You are an American, and you are supposed to salute the flag," Daigle-McDonald said, according to a statement the boy gave to a school administrator.
The next day, Daigle-McDonald again placed the boy's hand over his heart.
She then addressed the class.
"In my classroom, everyone will do the pledge; no religion says that you can't do the pledge," several students told a school administrator, according to a report. "If you can't put your hand on your heart, then you need to move out of the country."
The issue is one that has cropped up in school districts across the country for decades: Do students have a right to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance?
In the Hernando County School District, the answer is clear: Yes.
The district recently concluded an investigation into the incidents, finding that Daigle-McDonald violated a number of state education rules, professional conduct principles and the student's right to free speech and freedom of religion.
On Oct. 7, superintendent Lori Romano suspended the teacher for five days without pay. Daigle-McDonald, who has been with the district for nine years, was issued a formal letter of reprimand and instructed to attend diversity training. The misconduct was also reported to the state.
"Regardless of the circumstances that may have brought them about, such inappropriate actions on your part do not reflect positively on your position," Romano's letter stated.
The right not to participate in the pledge extends to all students — not just those who invoke a religious exception, according to the district's student code of conduct manual.
Students have the right to choose whether to participate in patriotic or religious activities, according to a section on student rights and responsibilities.
The right for students to opt out of the pledge dates to a 1943 Supreme Court ruling, West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette, said Catherine Cameron, a media law professor at Stetson University in Gulfport.
"Ever since then, it has been unconstitutional to force a child to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance (in a public school)," she said. "This teacher may not have been well versed under the First Amendment."
In a conference with Heather Martin, the Hernando district's executive director of business services, Daigle-McDonald told her version of the story.
She was aware that the boy was a Jehovah's Witness, but not that he couldn't say the pledge.
"His mother told me that he didn't celebrate holidays or birthdays, and I told her that was fine," the teacher said.
She said that he had been drawing or doodling in previous days. He seemed confused, she said. Some other kids were also not reciting the pledge.
On Sept. 11, the 12-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and western Pennsylvania, she said she didn't want the boy to be distracted and was worried "the other children might imitate him."
She said she made statements to the class about reciting the pledge, but never directed them solely at the boy.
Martin told her that nearly all of the students who were interviewed indicated that, on Sept. 12, the day after the first incident, she told the class that those who didn't want to say the pledge should move back to their home country.
"But that's not what I said," Daigle-McDonald responded. "It was directed at citizenship. I was talking about pledging allegiance to our country, and if you don't want to pledge to our country, you should go to your home country."
In a conference with the district, Daigle-McDonald, who did not return calls from the Times, said she wanted to apologize to the boys' parents.
"(I) just wanted all of the students to respect the day," she said. "It wasn't a holiday, so I didn't see why the whole class couldn't say the pledge."
The boy's parents declined to speak with the Times.
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.