A Florida student is facing misdemeanor charges after a confrontation with his teacher that began with his refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and escalated into what officials described as disruptive behavior.
The student, a sixth-grader at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland, Fla., east of Tampa, refused to stand for the pledge in the Feb. 4 incident, telling the teacher that he thinks the flag and the national anthem are “racist” against black people, according to an affidavit. The teacher then had what appeared to be a contentious exchange with the boy.
If living in the United States is “so bad,” why not go to another place to live? substitute teacher Ana Alvarez asked the student, according to a handwritten statement from her.
“They brought me here,” the boy replied.
Alvarez responded by saying, “Well you can always go back, because I came here from Cuba, and the day I feel I’m not welcome here anymore, I would find another place to live.” She then called the school office, as she did not want to keep dealing with the student, according to the statement.
Officials said the situation escalated. The student yelled at the administrative dean and a school resource officer with the Lakeland Police Department after they came to the classroom, accusing them of being racist and repeatedly refusing to leave the room.
“Suspend me! I don’t care. This school is racist,” the student, who is black, told the dean as he walked out of the classroom with his backpack, according to the affidavit.
According to a statement from the Lakeland Police Department, the boy then “created another disturbance and made threats while he was escorted to the office.” He was later charged by police with disruption of a school facility and resisting an officer without violence.
Lakeland police said in the news release that the student was not arrested for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “This arrest was based on the student’s choice to disrupt the classroom, make threats and resisting the officer’s efforts to leave the classroom,” police said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida issued a rebuke in the wake of the controversy. “This is outrageous. Students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the schoolhouse gates,” the group said on Twitter. “This is a prime example of the over-policing of Black students in school.”
The 11-year-old boy’s mother, Dhakira Talbot, was not immediately available for comment Sunday. But she told Bay News 9 the teacher was wrong and the school overstepped its authority by punishing her son, who was taken to a juvenile detention center and suspended for three days after the incident.
“I’m upset, I’m angry. I’m hurt, more so for my son. My son has never been through anything like this,” Talbot told the TV station. “I feel like this should’ve been handled differently. If any disciplinary action should’ve been taken, it should’ve been with the school. He shouldn’t have been arrested.” Talbot said she thought the charges should be dropped and that the school should be held accountable for its handling of the situation.
The affidavit stated that the student threatened to beat the teacher, but Talbot told Bay News 9 that her son did no such thing.
In a statement Monday, Polk County Public Schools said the resource officer, not school officials, made the decision to arrest the student.
The school district said students are not required to participate in reciting the pledge. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled in 1943 in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that schools cannot require students to salute the flag or recite the pledge, citing First Amendment rights.
But the substitute teacher was not aware that students are not required to recite the pledge, the school district said, adding that officials will look at improving training for substitute teachers and that Alvarez no longer works in the district.
“We do not condone the substitute’s behavior. We respect our students’ right to freedom of expression and we are committed to protecting that critical right while ensuring peaceful classrooms so all students can learn,” the district said.
The Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem have been sources of tension after critics, including President Trump, denounced former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the singing of anthem before each game, an act to protest racial injustice and police brutality. But many followed Kaepernick’s lead and defended his right to free speech and to protest.
In 2017, a black student was expelled from her Houston high school for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. India Landry’s silent protest prompted a long legal battle in federal court, with the teen’s family accusing the school of violating her free speech rights. Last year, the Texas attorney general intervened and defended a state law requiring students to recite the pledge.
Cleve R. Wootson and Alex Horton contributed to this report, which has been updated.