First-grader ‘takes a knee’ during the Pledge of Allegiance

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The mother of a 6-year-old Florida boy who took a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance on Monday morning had harsh words for the way the teacher and the school handled the incident and took her grievances to the media.

Eugenia McDowell told ABC News that her young son knelt during the daily pledge to the flag at Wiregrass Elementary School in Wesley Chapel, Florida. He did this after watching NFL players stage demonstrations during their games over the weekend and decided on his own to “take a knee” the next morning as his class recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

His mom claims the child never told his parents what he was planning to do, but they weren’t surprised.

McDowell told reporters that she was informed of the incident in a text message from her son’s teacher on Monday evening.

The message, which was shown to ABC News, read:

“I knew where he had seen it [going down on one knee], but I did tell him that in the classroom, we are learning what it means to be a good citizen, we’re learning about respecting the United States of America and our country symbols and showing loyalty and patriotism and that we stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

McDowell is outraged after stating that her son was publicly reprimanded for his gesture of silent protest, saying that the teacher has taught him to “be silent.” But according to Pasco County School District Spokesperson Linda Cobbe, the boy’s teacher said that no other students saw her talking to him about it. Cobbe said the teacher mouthed the words, “We stand for the pledge,” in response to the boy’s decision to take a knee.

McDowell told reporters how the child’s two older brothers had dropped to their knees a year ago during the national anthem at their high school football game. The boy and his family are huge football fans, and they also “regularly watch and discuss the news, including stories about racial justice,” according to ABC News.

The teacher wrote in her note to McDowell that she told the boy his class is learning about “what it means to be a good citizen,” which means “respecting the United States of America and our country symbols and showing loyalty and patriotism, and that we stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I know it’s a sensitive issue but I wanted to make you aware. Thanks.”

McDowell said she was upset with the teacher’s response, which she considered “biased, condescending and on the verge of threatening,” according to the news report. “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.'”

Principal Steve Williams stressed that neither the boy nor his teacher was punished, but McDowell feared that the incident would leave her son less willing to speak his mind because he initially thought he was in trouble.

“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 because students attending public schools are in a stronger position to assert their freedom of speech than are 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 by 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.”

Florida law allows school districts to ask for a parent letter excusing their children from participating, and that schools must then follow that direction. Savor noted that the absence of such a letter would not likely disqualify a student from exercising his First Amendment rights, regardless of his age.

However, Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer with the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said that if the child engages in counter-speech — spoken or silent, such as taking a knee — there might be a problem.

“The line that the Supreme Court has drawn is where your speech or conduct substantially disrupts the operation of school,” said LoMonte.

The right to protest outside the classroom “is actually stronger than inside the classroom,” Staver said.

When it comes to the teacher’s reaction, LoMonte explained that if she held the child up to embarrassment and ridicule, “that’s coercion,” he said. Not so much, if she speaks to him in private.

Another issue is the child’s age.

“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, also a lawyer, advised administrators in a memo on Wednesday 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.”

Since the incident, McDowell requested that her child be transferred to a different teacher, which he was.

“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.

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