Mariana Taylor is a sixth-grader with strong beliefs about racial injustice, sexism, gay rights and President Trump’s proposed wall at the Mexico border. Earlier this year, as her middle school class stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, she stayed seated.
A couple of weeks later, she silently took a knee rather than sit — inspired by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who ignited a national debate on patriotism and protest as he knelt during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality.
“I kind of wanted to show people that what’s going on is not okay,” said Mariana, an 11-year old from Baltimore County, recalling that Kaepernick began kneeling rather than sitting after a military veteran told him it was more respectful.
But the reaction to the girl’s protest has touched off questions about school policies and students’ rights that have reverberated beyond her classroom at Catonsville Middle School. She and her family say a teacher reprimanded and humiliated her, in earshot of other students. Her parents became involved, as did the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
Baltimore County school officials say they can’t discuss the matter in detail because of their obligation to protect student privacy. But in a statement, they rebutted the claim that any student was punished for not joining in the pledge.
“We know of no [Baltimore County Public Schools] student who has been reprimanded or punished for nonparticipation in patriotic observances,” they said. “We fully support students’ rights and encourage student voice as articulated in board policy.”
The clash follows similar tensions on the nation’s sports fields and in some schools. In the fall, a teacher reportedly admonished a 6-year-old in Florida after he took a knee during the pledge. Later, a Houston teen said school officials expelled her for not standing for the pledge, allegedly telling her that “this isn’t the NFL.”
In Maryland, Mariana and her parents say they would like to see clearer policies in their school system — and others — about students’ First Amendment rights. They say they don’t want other children to go through what Mariana did. They are not interested in suing.
“Our goal is just to ensure that this doesn’t happen to another child, in another school, anywhere,” Joanne Taylor, Mariana’s mother, said.
The conflict goes back to February, shortly after Mariana had written a paper about Kaepernick for an English class. She says she was asked to write about a person she admired, and she chose the quarterback.
“He stood up for what he believed in even though he could get fired,” she said.
On the third day of her taking a knee, she said, her teacher told her the rule was to stand and that she should stand to honor the good things in America, rather than worry about injustice. The teacher also mentioned having family overseas and said Mariana was disrespecting the country by kneeling, according to a detailed letter from the ACLU.
Mariana left the class in tears. “It was very upsetting that she came up and confronted me and said I was disrespecting the country,” she said.
So started a complicated back-and-forth about the teacher’s response and what the rules really mean, the Taylors said.
The teacher at one point argued that she acted out of concern for Mariana, worrying that the girl was fixated on the nation’s problems, according to the ACLU letter. “She did not explain how this concern would lead her to reprimand Mariana for being disrespectful,” the letter said.
A counselor spoke up for Mariana the day the alleged episode happened, saying she was “brave,” and at another point, the teacher said she was sorry if she had misunderstood policy or been wrong to question the girl, the letter said.
The principal weighed in a few days later, first saying school system rules prohibited kneeling but later telling the family he had learned from district administrators and legal advisers that the school system had not encountered a similar situation before, according to the letter. He thought the policy may need updating, the letter said.
He also said that a student who wants to kneel might have to explain it to the class to prevent negative reactions, the letter said — an idea that First Amendment expert Catherine J. Ross said would place a “terrible burden” on students and send a chilling message that controversial opinions must be explained in front of the class.
In her sixth-grade class, Mariana has continued to take a knee, without explaining her actions to the class. But the family worries the problem could arise again because the rules are vague.
Ross, a professor at George Washington University School of Law and author of the book “Lessons in Censorship,” said a 1943 Supreme Court decision establishes the right of students in public schools to refrain from reciting the pledge.
The high court has not ruled on taking a knee but in a 1969 decision protected silent, passive expressions of political protest in schools as it considered a case involving students’ right to wear black armbands during the Vietnam War, Ross said. Mariana similarly had the right to kneel, as long as she was not disruptive, she said.
“One important way to avoid these conflicts moving forward is to make sure teachers and administrators receive the education and training they need about what the Constitution protects and how to sort out these issues,” she said.
Baltimore County policy says “any student or staff member who wishes to be excused from the participation in a flag salute shall be excused.” As controversy flared this week, the school system said Wednesday that taking a knee is allowed under the policy, which coincidentally is soon up for a routine review by the school board.
Maryland law is more expansive, allowing students to refrain from standing, reciting or saluting the flag.
Deborah Jeon, legal director of the ACLU of Maryland, said it would be helpful for school systems to clarify policies or provide guidance so that educators are aware of legal protections for student dissent.
At a time when student activism is on the rise, the case could be followed by others, she said. The ACLU in Maryland typically gets a couple of calls a year about pledge issues in schools, she said.
In 2013, a student in Montgomery County, Enidris Siurano-Rodriguez, said she was sent to the office at Damascus High for not taking part in the pledge. The teenager was sitting to show her disagreement with U.S. policies toward Puerto Rico, where her family was from.
More recently, in December, a Fairfax County teacher was accused of grabbing a 10th-grade student sitting during the pledge and sending him out of class. The student, Eric Trammel, said his dissent started after he encountered the Black Lives Matter movement in eighth grade and described his action as a way of drawing attention to injustice.
In Baltimore County, Mariana came to her political beliefs early. At 11 years old, she has a puppy named Effie and likes art and acting classes. But she also attended a rally with her parents to protest the death of Freddie Gray while in Baltimore police custody.
“I feel like all of that has to stop,” she said.
Her mother, a hospice social worker, said she and Mariana had talked in the past about Kaepernick. She said she did not encourage Mariana to take a knee, but the family has supported Mariana’s actions.
The day after the teacher interceded, Mariana went back to school and knelt again, she said. She had risen early that day to get dressed, she said, choosing an orange sweatshirt that read: “Make a Difference.”