Students Assert Speech Rights By Sitting for Pledge

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Leilani Thomas was refusing to follow the pack long before Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, declined to stand for the playing of the US national anthem. Leilani, who is now 14, has been sitting while her classmates said the Pledge of Allegiance since she was in the second grade.

“Most of my teachers, they respected my decision and my right and belief. So they never said anything about it,” she told CNN during a phone interview Friday. “I think the pledge is a lie to me and it’s a lie to my people.”

When Leilani returned to school this year, however, her homeroom teacher was not having a student sit during the pledge. She told Leilani and other Native American pupils in her class that they were making “bad choices.”

“She told us that we didn’t have a choice not to stand up for the pledge,” Leilani said. “We told her we have the right to do so. And then she told us that we only have child’s rights.”

“I was dumbfounded,” Leilani said. “She pretty much told us that she could control us. She was forcing everyone in the class to stand up.”

In a few days, the teacher asked Leilani to meet with her in private. The teacher told Leilani that she was going to lower her grade because she would not stand for the pledge. And Konocti Unified School District Superintendent Donna Becnel verified that Leilani’s and the other students’ grades had been lowered, according to CNN.

Becnel explained that asking a student to stand for the pledge is a violation of that young person’s right to free speech. Becnel did not identify Leilani’s teacher’s name, saying any consequence or other issues with the teacher are confidential.

A recording of Leilani’s conversation with her teacher was given to CNN. In it, the teacher tells Leilani that if she were truly against standing for the pledge, she would need to write an essay explaining why this was so. The teacher continued by saying history can’t be changed, but if Leilani wrote a “good argument” about not standing, the issue could be “fixed.”

Leilani told the teacher she did not understand why she had to explain her actions. The teacher responded that the essay would show that Leilani had researched the subject and comprehended what she was doing.

When Leilani’s father heard the recording, he was offended. Gary Thomas said the teacher was not honoring his people and that she should be more sensitive toward the children she was teaching.

Thomas told local TV outlet KSLA that she would not stand for those who “did this to my people.”

Colin Daileda of Mashable writes that Americans “systematically murdered” Native Americans for years across the country. These aboriginal peoples were removed from their land and herded onto reservations.

After the recording was taken to Leilani’s school by her father, Leilani and the other students who did not stand were moved to another class.

Thomas had never been confronted about sitting out the pledge until her teacher at Lower Lake High School in Lower Lake, California lowered her grade. Avianne Tan of ABC News added that Becnel stands behind the protesting students, but wants the public to know that the district’s staff and teachers have been doing great work.

According to Kevin Tampone reporting for Syracuse Media Group, another student in Chicago is transferring to an online charter school because of the reaction to his choice of not standing for the pledge. Shemar Porter Turner, 15, said he sat out the pledge to show his outrage at the killing of blacks by police officers.

When his teacher asked why he was not participating, Turner said, “America sucks.” He has been physically pulled out of his seat by a teacher and has faced bullying from other students. The district superintendent denied that a teacher grabbed Turner.

Shemar apologized for his comment but said he would not stop “making statements.”