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Elmira School District Gets It Right

After the American Humanist Association sent a letter to the Elmira school district in New York because a teacher berated a student for not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, the superintendent of that school district took swift action and told all teachers that students have a constitutional right not to do so.

The statement read, in part: “As a general matter, the District is very well aware of each student’s right under United States Supreme Court and Second Circuit Court of Appeals precedent to decline participation in the Pledge. The District also welcomes community dialogue on freedom of speech, civic engagement, and the right to be free from political compulsion. ”

For this report, Austin shared an email she sent to district staff Wednesday morning outlining key points surrounding a student’s right to decline participation in the Pledge of Allegiance…

The district’s email to staff outlined the following points:

• Students cannot be compelled to salute the flag, recite the pledge, or even stand in silence.

• Students cannot be excluded from the room during the pledge.

• Students must be permitted to sit quietly during the pledge.

• Students who decline to participate are not, however, permitted to act disruptively during the pledge, such as by making motions, gestures, or noises.

• Similarly, other students may not disrupt the pledge by making motions, gestures, or noises to draw attention to or criticize the students who have opted out.

• Whether during the pledge or at other times, other students may not retaliate against the students opting out through threats, intimidation, or any other behaviors that would violate the Code of Conduct.

• District employees may not retaliate against students who opt out and should appropriately take and refer complaints from students regarding any inappropriate behaviors without taking sides in the debate, as we would on any topic about which people might feel passionately.

• All students may have opinions on the matter and may express those opinions in appropriate settings and at appropriate times (that is, not during instructional time dedicated to other subjects).

Kudos to the school district for instructing their teachers on the law. But this needs to be done nationwide. There needs to be a mandatory continuing education course for teachers that covers the full range of church/state controversies and what the law requires and forbids teachers and administrators to do.

Comments

  1. otrame says

    Funny, even my eldest’s middle school here in the wilds of South Texas knew better. When a substitute teacher noticed he wasn’t saying the pledge (he stood with the others but did not recite the pledge) she asked him why, and he said. “I am not going to pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth, and besides, I don’t believe in god so I would be lying if I said under god.” She flipped out and started ranting at him. Eventually she said, “Why don’t you move to Russia?” He said, “In Russia they would MAKE me say it.” She sent him to the principal.

    Who called me to tell me about it, being careful to note that my son had been respectful during the entire confrontation and to apologize for the behavior of the substitute and promising me (with that special “Don’t sue us” sincerity) that the teach would have the law explained to her.

    This was during the early 1990s.

    I agree that they need to make it clear for teachers, some of whom are honestly confused about issues of freedom of religion and speech when it comes to students in school.

  2. Crimson Clupeidae says

    I find it odd that in the corporate world, we have, annually, ridiculous amounts of training on diversity, rights in the workplace, sexual harassment, etc. I would think schools would be able to cover basic issues like this on an annual basis in a matter of half a day/schoolyear…..

  3. alanuk says

    I propose a new Pledge of Allegiance…

    • Students cannot be compelled to salute the flag, recite the pledge, or even stand in silence.

    • Students cannot be excluded from the room during the pledge.

    • Students must be permitted to sit quietly during the pledge.

    • Students who decline to participate are not, however, permitted to act disruptively during the pledge, such as by making motions, gestures, or noises.

    • Similarly, other students may not disrupt the pledge by making motions, gestures, or noises to draw attention to or criticize the students who have opted out.

    • Whether during the pledge or at other times, other students may not retaliate against the students opting out through threats, intimidation, or any other behaviors that would violate the Code of Conduct.

    • District employees may not retaliate against students who opt out and should appropriately take and refer complaints from students regarding any inappropriate behaviors without taking sides in the debate, as we would on any topic about which people might feel passionately.

    • All students may have opinions on the matter and may express those opinions in appropriate settings and at appropriate times (that is, not during instructional time dedicated to other subjects).

    I would think that all Americans would be proud to live in a country that upholds such ideals.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    Students cannot be compelled to salute the flag, recite the pledge, or even stand in silence.

    One possible avenue by which teachers might still screw up: they might imagine that there is a distinction between “compelled” and “persuaded.”

  5. noastronomer says

    @Crimson #2

    I rather suspect that the principle reason that the corporate world has to spend so much time and money on diversity, rights, harassment etc is because the schools do such a bog awful job of it. The substitute in otrame’s story being a prime example and I can think of several from my own school days.

  6. eric says

    @2 and @5 – I have a different hypothesis. I think schools probably do no worse than the corporate world in terms of training (and with the same variance; some good, some not so good). I think that, first, what we’re seeing here is anecdote – the one worst story that makes it through the media filters. We don’t hear about all the teachers and schools that support students who don’t stand or recite the pledge, but I bet there are thousands of such good teachers for every a-hole who yells at a student or tries to compel them to stand.

    Secondly, IF teachers really are worse (and I don’t really think they are; see above), then I would say it’s probably do to low wages and job security. In many subjects, schools are scrounging for good teachers and sometimes just have to take what they can get, because of low wages. You raise teaching salaries to be comparable to white collar corporate salaries, and I bet the problem largely goes away. Moreover, once some substandard person is in the system, they might act with more impunity than they would in a corporate setting because it is so much harder to fire them from a state teaching job vs. a corporate one. Nobody in my office is going to harass the atheist or communist or whatever because they would be escorted from the building about an hour after they did it, and they would never see the inside of the building again.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    Yes, I’ll second what @6 says. When there are (precious, rare) inservice days when teachers are being paid to work without having to deal with students (as opposed to the countless hours they work at their own homes, basically for free), there are a thousand administrative tasks for them to undertake, including making their lesson plans for the entire year and going through miles of administrative red tape.

    In other words, put an exec from any corporation into a classroom, and he (and on average it’s more likely to be a he than the teacher he would replace) wouldn’t last a week.

  8. says

    eric “Nobody in my office is going to harass the atheist or communist or whatever because they would be escorted from the building about an hour after they did it, and they would never see the inside of the building again.”
    You make them work outside?

  9. magistramarla says

    brucegee 1962 is exactly correct.
    In my district, we were required to do “diversity training” and “sexual harassment training” at the beginning of each school year. All of the so-called training was a series of very boring online slideshows that we were supposed to watch. It was very easy to turn the sound down and allow the things to run while doing something else that was more useful.
    We had quite a few teachers who could have used some real-time training.

  10. David Eriksen says

    I can’t imagine how hard it would be to effectively get this sort of training out to teachers. One of my jobs is providing diversity training to the soldiers that I work with. I can force them to listen, if I have to, but it doesn’t do much good because I still can’t force them to comprehend. Just today, I had to walk away from a conversation that was making atheists out to be the root of everything evil in society (today was not the day to tackle this).

    How would you even begin to convince someone to change their behavior when they believe they’re right? Target their pocket book? Fire them?

  11. Trebuchet says

    How would you even begin to convince someone to change their behavior when they believe they’re right? Target their pocket book? Fire them?

    Many Republicans would, of course, happily fire ALL public school teachers.

    There was an incident in my Junior High in which a Jehovah’s Witness student in my homeroom class refused to stand or recite the pledge. He was called out of the room on a pretext and the Vice Principal came in and gave us a stern lecture about his constitutional rights and that other students were not to harass him. In 1959. In Montana. I’m glad I grew up in such a progressive environment, which I fear would not be found in that place today.

  12. Lithified Detritus says

    Trebuchet@11

    That is awesome!

    My state passed a mandatory “opportunity to say the pledge” law which took effect this school year. I wanted no part of it, but the legislature covered their constitutional rears by making clear that it was “voluntary.” I’m sure they assumed that social pressure would do the job. The results in my classroom have been interesting. I was not willing to lead the pledge, so I asked if any student would like to do so. Early on, there were volunteers, and nearly everyone stood.There is a JW in the class, and that student always stands quietly while others say the pledge, but another student did not, mostly out of contrariness. Near the end of the school year, about half of the class stands (the JW still does), and some of them make a game of getting through the pledge as quickly as possible. They have figured out that it is meaningless. This may backfire on the Repugs who rammed it through. I should add that this is in a pretty conservative rural district.

    I must confess that I have been somewhat lax in enforcing respectful silence during the pledge, although I stand quietly, with hand over heart. Covering my own rear…

  13. says

    David Eriksen “Just today, I had to walk away from a conversation that was making atheists out to be the root of everything evil in society (today was not the day to tackle this).”
    But they are? Haven’t you read my new book, “Athiests are the Root of Everything Evil in Society Today”? It’s another in the series, “Sluts!”, “Hippies!” and one about “urban” people that, thank God, is finally out of print. I can finally cross out each use of the N-word and put in “Mexican”, then reissue it as a new book.
    It’s a pretty good racket. Granted, rotting the humanity out of people by promoting their worst instincts is kind of evil, but as long as I never have to look at myself in the mirror I never have to see what a damned monster I am. It was either this or become a lawyer.

  14. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Kudos to the school district for instructing their teachers on the law. But this needs to be done nationwide. There needs to be a mandatory continuing education course for teachers that covers the full range of church/state controversies and what the law requires and forbids teachers and administrators to do.

    Yes. Well said and quoted for truth – in fact, why hasn’t this been done already & covered in teaching the teachers courses?

  15. eric says

    How would you even begin to convince someone to change their behavior when they believe they’re right? Target their pocket book? Fire them?

    Carrots are probably preferrable to sticks, but school budgets are so strapped that its probably pretty difficult for schools to hand out either. When you can’t give bonuses or raises to good teachers, or withhold same from teachers who have disciplinary infractions – because nobody’s getting a raise or bonus, period – then your options are limited. Frankly, firing is an unjustified overreaction to many of these incidents and I can see how a decent administrator would be unwilling to use it. I suppose the one instrument available to administrators that is somewhat unique to the profession is the ability to move teachers around – make them teach “worse” classes if they misbehave, or even move them to undesirable schools. That, however, doesn’t just punish the teacher, it also partially punishes other teachers whose schedules will be affected, and it punishes the students.So not a great option.

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