Student protest — peaceful dissent must be allowed

Here’s something most everyone can agree upon — the business of kneeling during a patriotic display has become a singularly polarizing event and unnecessarily so. What started with NFL player Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem two years ago to protest wrongdoings against African Americans and other minorities became an exercise in Red State-Blue State politics when President Donald Trump equated it to dissing war veterans. This enormous divide in attitude toward the protest still exists and likely cost Mr. Kaepernick his livelihood while endearing President Trump to his core supporters.

Now comes word that an 11-year-old girl took similar action at Catonsville Middle School several months ago, taking a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance in protest of sexism and racism in society. The outcome? According to her mother and representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, it was a scolding from her teacher that itself created a disruption and tearful humiliation. Her parents weren’t happy with that outcome; neither was the ACLU. The school system released a statement on Tuesday and a revised one on Wednesday saying, essentially, that the event didn’t happen the way the girl’s supporters claim but that the system supports student expression. Here is the key passage: “Baltimore County Public Schools has no record of any student being punished or reprimanded for choosing not to participate in the pledge of allegiance. We fully support students’ rights and encourage student voice as articulated in Board policy.”

As a result, let us stipulate that some of the specifics of exactly what happened on Feb. 25 have to be taken with a grain of salt — no offense to the student, her parents or the school system, but that’s simply the reality of any situation in which the accounts don’t line up precisely. Still, the core complaint appears valid: Baltimore County Public Schools doesn’t have sufficient policy guidance to cover this situation, and the system, and its peers across the state, ought to develop it because as surely as the NFL returns this fall, there will be more students at all school levels ready to test their First Amendment limits.

No doubt there are people who are appalled that a middle school student can take a knee in school. They will recall their own days in public school when the pledge had to be recited, hands on hearts, staring at the U.S. flag, and no one dared do otherwise for fear of a quick trip to the principal’s office or worse, a call home to parents. This is how a school should be run, they would reason. When a teacher tells a student to jump, the only proper response is, “How high?” And while we generally approve of cooperative students and keeping order in schools, that’s not where the law actually stands.

Under state law, a student can opt out of patriotic exercises without offering an explanation for why. Is taking a knee opting out or is it an active disruption of school? Again, we weren’t there to witness this specific interaction, but it would presumably be more the former then the latter. The student had the right to take a knee. Any student does. And it’s a shame if the teacher didn’t take the opportunity to discuss the protest with the protester as well as other students in the class. This is what they call in the trade a “teachable moment.”

That doesn’t mean that middle school students need to be indoctrinated into the ACLU point of view, but there’s value in understanding the history of the Pledge of Allegiance (the original 1892 version actually started with a military salute, and the words “the Flag of the United States of America” were not added until 1923; “under God” wasn’t added until 1954) as well as the protections granted to civil protest under the U.S. Constitution. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, for example, the Supreme Court made clear in 1969 that students could protest the Vietnam war by wearing black arm bands to school, a show of respectful dissent. Similarly, students ought to understand the limits they face. They can’t show up at the next Pledge with a sign that says “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” as the nation’s highest court pointed out in 2007 (Morse v. Frederick).

Taking a knee is a form of respectful dissent. Teachers and principals ought to be informed of this whether they work in Baltimore County or Somerset County or Garrett County or anywhere else for that matter. Baltimore County would help its own case if it simply reminded school personnel of the law and how best to interpret their own existing policies. That’s all that is really required.

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