Florida: Pasco County School Targets Student Kneeling During Pledge

Wiregrass Elementary Pledge of Allegiance controversy

Pasco County school district in Florida is under fire after targeting and publicly humiliating a student who chose to kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance this week. The incident follows Trump’s attack on NFL players sitting out the anthem to protest racial injustice.

Reporting on the infringement of the student’s constitutional rights, ABC 6 reported:

A first grader in Pasco County, Florida chose to take a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance, and his mother is upset with how the teacher, the school and the Pasco County school district responded.

At school on Monday, a first grader went down on one knee during the Pledge of Allegiance, he was then told by his teacher to stand up and stop it, in front of all his classmates.

Following the incident at Wiregrass Elementary School, the student’s mother received the following via text message:

“I just wanted to let you know that this morning when it was time to do the Pledge of Allegiance, (your son) went down on one knee. I knew where he had seen it 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. I know its a sensitive issue but I wanted to make you aware. Thanks”

Reacting to the message, the mother told ABC 6, “What [the text message] said to me was that him taking a knee was the exact opposite – [That] He was disrespectful of the county, he was being disrespectful of the flag… And we don’t teach that.”

After clarifying she did not know her child would be engaging in protected protest that day, she added, “She told him right away, based on what he told me, to stand up and to stop it… That’s not her right.”

The school district stands behind their illegal actions noting that they should have pulled the student aside rather than castigating him in front of his peers.

Linda Cobbe with the school district says they followed state law. But did add, “It would have been better if the teacher would have pulled the student aside and talked about it. without the other students witnessing it.”

“State law says that the only way that a student can be exempted from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is if they have a written request from their parent and even then the law says that they still have to stand,” Cobbe said.

The school district says they plan to discuss the policy with parents and staff and that adding respect and civility are huge.

Cobbe added, “We certainly would not want to infringe on anyone’s rights, but we have to follow state law.”

To wit, federal law supersedes state law when the two come into conflict. In this case, regardless of what Florida state law says, students cannot be barred – even without parental permission – from engaging in protected speech and expression, Explicitly, a student cannot be barred from kneeling or sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance. The Supreme Court has specifically (and repeatedly) ruled on the subject of sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance, in fact.

We covered this recently when a Texas school instructed its students pledging allegiance was required by state law. We noted:

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld students’ rights to decline participation in Pledge of Allegiance recitation in classrooms. The Supreme Court handed down the original case setting the precedent (West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette) in 1943, in fact.

Later, in Frazier Frazier v. Winn that legal principle was explicitly upheld as the justices said, “students have a constitutional right to stay seated during the Pledge is well established.”

The high court laid out one of the more important points in Pledge jurisprudence in 2003’s Walker-Serrano ex rel. Walker v. Leonard when they said, “For over fifty years, the law has protected elementary students’ rights to refrain from reciting the pledge of allegiance to our flag. Punishing a child for non-disruptively expressing her opposition to recitation of the pledge would seem to be as offensive to the First Amendment as requiring its oration.”

When schools do not respect the constitutional rights of their students, they not only set a bad example – they open themselves up to costly civil rights litigation.

Here’s to hoping Pasco County school district has learned their lesson.


Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.


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