Leilani Thomas began her silent protest years ago.
The Native American teenager from northern California said she has been sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance since second grade, when her parents told her about how her ancestors suffered at the hands of colonizers.
“I don’t agree with it,” Thomas told KPIX 5. “So I’m not going to stand for the people who did this to my people.”
Thomas said her stance against the flag had never gotten her in trouble over the years.
But that changed last week, when one of her teachers at Lower Lake High School purportedly docked her grade over her refusal to rise for the pledge.
“She says that it represents the military and that they risked their lives for us,” Thomas said. “And I always tell her, my people risked our lives for our land, for our freedom, for our rights.”
The exchange — which school administrators don’t dispute — has become all too familiar in the three weeks since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited controversy by refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a preseason game. Kaepernick said he was protesting recent fatal shootings by police, and he has continued to kneel during the anthem.
Athletes around the country have joined him, drawing praise from some fans and contempt from others who called it crass and disrespectful.
Now, as a free-speech-vs.-patriotism debate rages on, Kaepernick’s protest is spreading to high schools, and some school officials aren’t taking kindly to similar acts of quiet dissent.
In Thomas’s case, it’s not clear whether the teacher, who hasn’t been identified, specifically had Kaepernick’s actions in mind when she lowered the high school sophomore’s participation score from a five to a three. But Thomas said this is the first time since elementary school that she’s been punished for refusing to stand.
“She told me I was being disrespectful,” Thomas told KXTV, “saying I was making bad choices and I don’t have the choice to sit during the pledge.”
Thomas gave KPIX what she said was a recording of her spat with the teacher.
“If you really, really have an argument and you feel so strongly about it, then I need to see it written out,” the teacher says in the recording, according to KPIX. “Here’s the thing — those people, they’re not alive anymore, your ancestors.”
The superintendent of Thomas’s school district said she supports Thomas’s right to free speech, adding that Thomas was switched to another class, along with another student who recently sat out the pledge, KPIX reported.
“Students don’t lose their First Amendment rights when they walk in the door,” the superintendent, Donna Becnel, told the station. “We are dealing with the teacher on this.”
A similar dispute played out earlier this month in a Chicago high school, where a 15-year-old student said his teacher yanked him out of his chair for sitting during the pledge.
Sophomore Shemar Cooper told the Chicago Tribune that he never stood to recite the pledge during his entire freshman year at Eisenhower High School.
It wasn’t an issue then, he said, nor did it cause trouble when he declined to stand for the pledge Aug. 26, the same day Kaepernick sat out the national anthem.
Initially, Cooper’s teacher said she didn’t mind, but a few days later, when the teen did it again, she grabbed him by the arm to pull him out of his seat, he told the Tribune. Cooper said the teacher then told the class that anyone who refused to stand for the pledge would be disciplined.
The school superintendent said the district would honor Cooper’s right not to stand, but Cooper’s mother told the Tribune that the promise wasn’t enough — after weeks of threats and harassment from other students, she pulled him from the school, she said.
Other students in schools around the country have been threatened with punishments for mimicking Kaepernick’s protest. In Massachusetts, a high school football player was threatened with a one-game suspension after he took a knee during a game, but the suspension was revoked after the story erupted on social media, according to Masslive.
Thanks to all your love and support my suspension of 1 game has been terminated! pic.twitter.com/a8RB9c200N
— BLACK LIVES MATTER (@Oppong_5) September 12, 2016
In New Jersey, a Catholic private school issued an ultimatum to its sports teams this month saying anyone who doesn’t “demonstrate appropriate respect” for “The Star-Spangled Banner” will be barred from playing in two games, according to Philly.com. And a Florida high school principal drew criticism this week for ordering students to “stand and stay quiet” when the song is played at school sporting events, the Miami Herald reported.
Thomas, the California teen, said she has no intention of stopping.
“I’m understanding it more that it means a lot,” she said, “and to a lot of my people also.”
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