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Posted at 4:44 PM ET, 02/23/2010

First Amendment folly in Moco school

By Valerie Strauss

The Montgomery County public school teacher who wrongly humiliated and disciplined a student who chose not to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance clearly did not understand the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment.

But, then again, neither do most Americans.

The episode happened at Roberto Clemente Middle School when a 13-year-old girl chose not to stand nor to recite the school’s daily Pledge of Allegiance, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. Her teacher ordered her to stand, and then, when she refused, sent her to stand in the hall.

She was threatened with a detention but the next day chose again to stay seated during the pledge. The teacher called school police officers, who escorted her to the counselor’s office. An assistant principal contacted by the girl’s mother said the child had to apologize for “defiance,” which she did.

But the law is on the girl’s side. It clearly states that nobody can require someone to pledge allegiance to the flag or take part in any exercises designed to show patriotism.

The ACLU got involved, and eventually, county school officials recognized that the teacher’s actions were in violation of school system rules.

"We are in the process of rectifying the situation which will include a meeting with the family and an apology to the student by those involved, including the teacher,” schools spokesman Dana Tofig said, in a statement.

Such incidents wouldn’t happen if more folks understood the First Amendment, but the public’s depth of knowledge of what it guarantees is pretty thin.

The 2009 First Amendment report by the non-profit First Amendment Center says:

* When asked to identify the specific freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, 55% named free speech, followed by 18% who mentioned freedom of religion and 16% who said freedom of the press. Fourteen percent mentioned freedom of assembly and only 4% named the right to petition the government. Thirty-nine percent of Americans could not name any of the freedoms in the First Amendment.

*Nineteen percent of Americans said the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, though the large majority of Americans (73%) disagreed, saying the First Amendment does not go too far.

*Though nearly half (48%) of Americans say the press has about the right amount if freedom, 39% say it has too much freedom to do what it wants while only 7% say it has too little freedom. Over the past few years, the percentage saying that the press has “too little” freedom has declined and the percentage saying it has “too much” freedom has increased slightly.

*Three in five respondents (60%) say Americans have just about the right amount of religious freedom, while 29% say Americans have too little religious freedom. One in 20 (5%) thinks Americans have too much religious freedom.

Meanwhile, few schools adequately teach the all-important First Amendment.

But after eight years of No Child Left Behind’s obsession with testing math and reading skills, civics education is just one of those subjects, along with history and the arts and science and social studies and physical education, that have been left far, far behind.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 23, 2010; 4:44 PM ET
Categories:  Civics Education, Higher Education, Montgomery County Public Schools  | Tags:  civics education, montgomery county schools  
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Has this teacher been fired yet? If not, why not? This is inexcusable.

Posted by: cassander | February 23, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse received a related question in its JustAsk, community-based Q&A forum...

Should elementary school children in the U.S. be required to recite the pledge of allegiance? Should every classroom fly the flag?

Some U.S. schools have abandoned the practice of reciting the Pledge and flying the U.S. flag in the classroom, and some parents are saddened by this cultural shift. Others are suggesting alternative ways to teach patriotism.

Thanks for your commentary about the Roberto Clemente Middle School story, providing another perspective for parents and schools to consider.

Posted by: dgraab | February 23, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

I've had the pleasure of observing schools in a number of Western European countries. Not one of them had anything resembling America's institutionalized flag rituals. In fact, lining the kids up to "swear allegiance" would have been horrifyingly unthinkable to them.

Telling kids to chant a loyalty oath every day is the kind of thing you'd expect in North Korea, not the USA.

Posted by: targusowlkiln | February 23, 2010 8:28 PM | Report abuse

In this case, the 1st amendment can be seen to defend one's right to be ignorant, and I guess the teacher and the many involved in this are leveraging this to their full advantage. Mont. Co. Public Schools are probably in the top 10 in the country - which is a sad statement for the country!!!

Posted by: DontGetIt | February 24, 2010 7:29 AM | Report abuse

It is so wierd reading this article after living in Louisiana for 10 months. At the school where I worked they said the pledge every day.The school was on an army post, but still the cultural gap is stunning.

Posted by: papaal06 | February 24, 2010 8:19 AM | Report abuse

Never mind the First Amendment: the teacher has demonstrated that she doesn't even understand the words to the Pledge of Allegiance. What does she think "liberty for all" means?

And does she not understand that a pledge taken under threat is no pledge at all?

The irony is that the "under God" phrase was inserted in large part to emphasize how different we were from the "godless communists". A more significant difference between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is that the latter was the kind of place that forced people to take loyalty oaths; it didn't occur to our legislators that perhaps NOT being that kind of country was a more important way of keeping ourselves distinct from the U.S.S.R.

Posted by: hmessinger2 | February 24, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

So, the fascists are running the schools now? Fire the teacher and the assistant principal. This is a disgrace.

Posted by: jckdoors | February 24, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

What a sad commentary on the state of our country and schools that standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is now controversial. When I was in school (I'm 56), we recited the pledge every morning with pride. I'm sure this young girl didn't come to her decision on her own (I also have a 13 year old daughter). I'd be interested to hear from her parents what caused them to encourage their daughter to protest the pledge. What language is offensive to them? They're not pledging allegiance to a government but to a republic that affords them their liberties. If that's ofensive, then find another country to live in. The parents should be ashamed!

Posted by: jts53 | February 24, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Her parents have nothing to be ashamed of.

Posted by: jckdoors | February 24, 2010 9:06 AM | Report abuse

I went to Catholic school until I went to college and we stood and said the pledge every day. No big deal. I never felt repressed or pressured to say it. I just don't understand why it is now a terrible thing to take a moment in your day to show a little pride in your country. People are comparing saying the pledge to the lives and culture instituted by the North Korean government on its people. Seriously? That is what you think? Good grief.

Posted by: cafm70 | February 24, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

At DontGetIt...your comment implies one is ignorant because they simply dont want to say the pledge of allegiance? Is that the statement you want to make about yourself?
What I cant believe is a school system theoretical blocks from the capitol and there is an EDUCATOR who tramples ones rights. I cant believe this is even something that can happen in todays education environment in the United States in 2010. BTW...I am a U. S. Navy veteran.

Posted by: dc_concerned_citizen | February 24, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

The assumption that the parents pressured their child into doing this isn't always true. Sometimes kids do these things out of rebellion and other times they actually develop beliefs about them on their own. When I was in 6th grade I decided to stop saying the pledge because I had an issue with imposed patriotism. My mother, a 1st grade teacher, probably would have jumped all over me if she knew (more because she would have been mortified that I was calling attention to myself, which would have ultimately called attention to her than because of anything else). But she never asked and I never volunteered it, so it never came up.

Posted by: Rob63 | February 24, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Funny.... Not one mention on WHAT the rights are under the first amendment are in this article, but, managed to fit in a hit at the Bush Admin at the end! Typical WAPO story, lacking in facts, only political blah!

Posted by: kenayers1 | February 24, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

I have always told my kids that they say the pledge because they attend a publicly funded school. If nothing else, they can be reminded daily of what all of our taxes are providing them and, hopefully, they feel grateful. Of course, if they chose not to say it (exercising their first amendment rights), I would ask for an explanation. What was this girl's reason for not participating? I think at the age of 13, it would be important to have this be a lesson of 1st Amendment rights rather than attention-getting.

Posted by: travelingmom | February 24, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

The fact that it's called a 'pledge of allegiance' should make clear that it is NOT mandatory to do so unless you actually believe in what is being pledged. Chairman Mao may have been pleased with this teacher's actions; maybe this teacher needs a lesson in Geography with a Civics refresher for good measure.

Posted by: kahlua87 | February 24, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Although the teacher was wrong, no one in the administration corrected her regarding the first incident, so she would be clear on what the policy is. Yet, the teacher is left to apologize. Way to support your staff. Perhaps an apology is due, but that might include one to the teacher if the administrators didn't clarify her wrong doing the first time. It's so easy to point the finger at the ones who are doing what they are told. Yet the ones in authority get to maintain their dignity.

Posted by: lk11 | February 24, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I mindlessly repeated the words of the pledge as a child, having no real idea what they meant. As an adult looking back on it, the idea of requiring children to recite a daily loyalty Pledge with religious overtones seems ridiculous.

An earlier story in the WaPo stated that the child was removed from the classroom and taken to the office 2 days in a row. Why didn't the school administrators resolve this issue after the student was brought to the office the first time?

Posted by: loved1 | February 24, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

I am a mcps teacher; I do not personally say the pledge, nor do I insist that my students do so. Some do, some don't.

Posted by: whatistobedone | February 24, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

What a great Country America has become. We can all share in the benefits and entitlements (e.g. public education) but decline to acknowledge the scorce.

Posted by: PracticalIndependent | February 24, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

"The teacher called school police officers. . ." Yikes was that the "school police" or the "secret police"?

Posted by: LMarie1 | February 24, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

How are the rights of the child violated?

This article assumes that asking the child to say the oath violates the right to freedom of speech. That's nonsense.

Yet to proof was offered.

The US local and state Government is paying for her education.

If the child ,and presumably the parents, don't want the child saying the oath - ie, conforming with basic rules and protocol take the child out of public school and pay for her education themselves.

For the out there in left field person that compared the situation to the USSR. In the USSR she would have been beaten, given one more chance, and then shot not given detention. Under Stalin if she didn't say it convincingly she could have been beaten. A slight difference.

Posted by: agapn9 | February 24, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

agapn9: The county provides an education because it has to. That's what taxes are for. Her parents, nor the child owe nothing but their taxes. The school was out of line, not this child.

Posted by: jckdoors | February 24, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

"The teacher called school police officers. . ." Yikes was that the "school police" or the "secret police"?

Like the ones in PA in the laptop webcam spying incident.

Stuff like this drives me nuts. I hope my son loves this country. I think the best way to do that is to teach him history, not force him recite the pledge. More and more, I'm coming to the realization that if I want my son to receive a proper education a public school would be the last place to do it. I'd be better off dropping him at a library or museum for a few hours a day.

Posted by: NoVAHockey | February 24, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Some religious faiths have very strong prohibitions against oaths and pledges, they believe that you only swear an oath to God. While many may disagree, it is inappropriate for a school system to put a kid through this type of action. While I am a bit surprised a teacher did this I am more surprised that the administration did not see that they had a problem immediately and instead sustained the teachers action. I wonder if there is a bigger issue going on here with the teacher not having control of the class... pure speculation, but I have a feeling there is more going on here. To the person who commented on Europe, yes they may be appalled with a pledge, but I promis you every country in Europe has its on nationalist measures that act to exclude.

Posted by: Brooklander | February 24, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

In addition to apologizing to the child, perhaps this teacher should be suspended without pay for a couple days. While she is serving her suspension she should write an essay on what she has learned from this incident.

Also, transfer the child to a different class. There is no reason she should have to deal with this teacher for the rest of the school year. Give the child a fresh start!

Posted by: Hoya79 | February 24, 2010 8:02 PM | Report abuse

Not one mention on WHAT the rights are under the first amendment are in this article,

re-read the first asterisk-ed paragraph toward the end. get it??

I'm a teacher, and I decline to lead my students in the pledge.

Posted by: ekorea | February 25, 2010 2:11 AM | Report abuse

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