The ACLU of Maryland is asking the Baltimore County school system to clarify its policies on student dissent after it says an 11-year-old girl at Catonsville Middle School was reprimanded by her teacher for "taking a knee" during the Pledge of Allegiance.
In a letter to the school system, the ACLU said that on Feb. 25 the girl, Mariana Taylor, "silently and respectfully knelt adjacent to her desk when the Pledge of Allegiance was recited during her morning homeroom class." It said her teacher then "improperly reprimanded Mariana within earshot of the class, reducing her to tears and creating both a class disturbance and a humiliating incident for the child."
The girl was inspired by Colin Kaepernick, an NFL player who knelt while the national anthem was played before games in 2016 in what he said was a protest of racial injustice in the country, the ACLU said. Kaepernick's actions prompted a national debate over free speech and respect for the flag.
"I understood where they were coming from. I felt I really agreed with them and I thought I could do it, too," Mariana Taylor said in an interview Monday.
The ACLU said the girl's teacher told her that the rules said that she had to stand, and suggested she participate as a tribute to the good things that are happening in America. It said Mariana then left the room upset and crying and was told by another teacher to go to the school counselor. It said Mariana then called her mother, Joanne Taylor, who went to the school to meet with the counselor and teacher.
On Tuesday, Baltimore County public school officials issued a statement saying they have "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," the statement read.
The ACLU said school officials gave the family varying interpretations of its policy on patriotic exercises, which states "any student or staff member who wishes to be excused from the flag salute shall be excused."
"We don't think it was well handled," said Deborah Jeon, the legal director for the ACLU of Maryland. "I think the principal and the counselor were trying to handle it but they weren't clear themselves on what the rules were."
Maryland law states that students and teachers have the right to exclude themselves from patriotic exercises. In addition, the ACLU says that Maryland courts have ruled that students do not have to explain why they are choosing not to participate.
Jeon said the county school system's policy lacks detail that could help teachers and principals who are confronted with a student who kneels or puts a fist in the air during the pledge.
In its letter, which was sent to the school system last week and made public Monday, the ACLU asks county school officials to make the rule more clear. The ACLU said it delayed the public release of the letter because of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's death last week.
"The existing rule, I think, is dated and really needs to be clarified somewhat," said Jeon. "That cries out for some clarification to keep pace with how the Supreme Court has interpreted the law."
Jeon said the ACLU is contacted two or three times a year by students and their families who are concerned about an issue in a public school system. She said school systems around the state need to clarify their policies.
The Baltimore City public schools' rule on patriotic exercises says that "no student or staff member will be compelled to participate in patriotic exercises, nor will any student be penalized or ostracized for failure to participate." It also notes that no student or staff member will "interfere with the rights of others to participate in patriotic exercises."