Pledge of Allegiance apology will come from Montgomery teacher

By Jenna Johnson and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 25, 2010; B02

A Montgomery County teacher has agreed to apologize to a 13-year-old student whom he reprimanded and sent to the office for twice refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, said a lawyer who represents the student.

The unidentified student was embarrassed and humiliated after the teacher called a school security officer to escort her to the counselor's office, said Ajmel Quereshi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland who is representing the family. The student has not returned to Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown since the incident in late January but plans to return to class this week, he said.

A Montgomery County schools spokesman confirmed that the issue is being resolved. The middle school's acting principal sent a letter home with students Wednesday that explains the situation and how the school is addressing it.

In addition to an apology, the mother of the girl was told that the teacher, who has not been identified by either side, and school administrators plan to lead the girl's class in a discussion about the incident and their constitutional rights, Quereshi said.

"It's not an issue of just the pledge. It's a larger issue about their First Amendment rights," Quereshi said. "It's an important lesson that should stay with them."

The Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that students cannot be forced to salute the flag. Maryland law explicitly allows any student or teacher to be excused from participating in the pledge, according to the ACLU.

The Montgomery school system's student handbook contains a section about "Patriotic Exercises" that reads: "You cannot be required to say a pledge, sing an anthem, or take part in patriotic exercises. No one will be permitted to intentionally embarrass you if you choose not to participate."

The incident began Jan. 27, when the girl did not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance during her first-period class. The teacher demanded that she stand, and when she did not, he ordered her to leave the classroom and stand in the hallway. He threatened to give her detention and sent her to the counselor's office, where she stayed for the entire first period, according to a letter the ACLU sent to the middle school's acting principal, Khadija F. Barkley, on Feb. 5.

Barkley referred questions from a reporter to the county schools spokesman Wednesday.

That was the first time the girl had not stood for the pledge, Quereshi said, and she had a personal reason for not doing so, although she did not want that reason to be shared publicly.

"She does not have to have a reason," Quereshi said. "If the student decides to sit peacefully, that's within her constitutional rights."

The next day, the girl again refused to stand for the pledge. The teacher asked a school security officer to escort her to the counselor's office, according to the letter. Students in the class mocked the girl, Quereshi said.

The school system confirmed the sequence of events. The teacher's actions were a clear violation of the school's regulations, which are based on state law, school spokesman Dana Tofig said Tuesday.

"The policy is very, very clearly stated," Tofig said. "Our teachers are expected to know the students' rights and responsibilities. . . . A mistake has been made, and it will be rectified."

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