Md. student who says she faced harassment wants to discuss reform with officials

May 22, 2013

A Montgomery County student, who said she was harassed for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance said the apology she received from her principal wasn’t enough. She still wants to meet with district officials and Superintendent Joshua P. Starr’s staff.

Enidris Suirano-Rodriguez, a Damascus High School tenth-grader is seeking reform that would let other students to peacefully and more freely protest the U.S. government in the future.

Suirano-Rodriguez was called to the assistant principal's office on April 4 after her biology teacher noticed she was sitting while other students stood to recite the pledge.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1943 and Maryland law say public schools cannot force students to salute the flag.

“It’s my form of peaceful protest,” Suirano-Rodriguez said. She said she has been protesting against U.S. policies in Puerto Rico, specifically that Puerto Ricans can’t vote for the president yet are subject to U.S. laws and policies.

Suirano-Rodriguez said she was being harassed and treated differently than other students for not standing during the pledge. She and the ACLU of Maryland, representing Suirano-Rodriguez, said the meeting with the assistant principal was upsetting, and the school district has been “dismissive” about the incident.

But school and district officials say the assistant principal had a meeting with Suirano-Rodriguez to “make sure everything is okay,” and the teacher wasn’t harassing her, according to an attorney’s letter on behalf of Montgomery County schools.

“The principal has spoken to the staff involved and sent an e-mail to staff reminding them that students are not required to stand for the pledge of allegiance," the letter said. “He also made personal phone calls to Ms. Rodriguez ... and to Mr. Suirano ... to apologize and he spoke directly to the student and apologized ... all of which were accepted.”

Suirano-Rodriguez said, however, that she also wants an apology from the assistant principal. She and the ACLU also want to meet with district officials to possibly discuss training employees in the future or other actions that would prevent similar incidents.

Suirano-Rodriguez isn’t the first Montgomery County student to have had problems exercising their right to sit out the pledge. In 2010, a Roberto Clemente Middle School teacher had to apologize to a student after school security officers escorted the 13-year-old out of class for not taking part.

David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU, said the group hasn’t sued the school system and would like to avoid doing so.

“We’re asking for a meeting because I think it is more productive to have a meaningful discussion about this than an exchange of correspondence,” Rocah said.

Montgomery County schools spokesman Dana Tofig said he had not yet seen the letter from the ACLU requesting meetings with the superintendent, but said the school system has a clear policy: No one can be compelled to participate in the pledge or any other patriotic activities. But with 202 schools, 149,000 students and 22,000 staff members, Tofig said, issues are bound to arise.

“If you look at the size of our district, if an issue does come up, we do address it,” Tofig said.

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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