Three small-town eighth-graders in Minnesota were suspended by their principal for not standing Thursday morning for the Pledge of Allegiance, violating a district policy that the principal now says may soon be reworded to protect free speech rights.
"My son wasn't being defiant against America," said Kim Dahl, mother of one of the students, Brandt, who attends Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton Junior High School in northwestern Minnesota.
Brandt told the Forum newspaper in Fargo that Thursday's one-day in-school suspension, "was kind of dumb because I didn't do anything wrong. It should be the people's choice."
Kim Dahl said the "punishment didn't fit the crime. If they wanted to know why he didn't stand, they should've made him write a paper." She said her son has been declining to stand all school year, offered no reason for sitting and was not obligated to explain his actions.
The school's handbook says all students are required to stand but are not required to recite the pledge. The same is true for all four schools in the district, a school official said.
"These three [students] didn't, and they got caught," said Mel Olson, the district's community education director. He said he backs the punishment, "being a veteran and a United States of America citizen, absolutely." Olson served in the Marines in Japan during the Vietnam War.
The head of the Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union said that the school's actions against the students are unconstitutional, and his office informed the district of that today in a strongly worded letter.
"The school can't do that; that's illegal," said Chuck Samuelson, the civil liberties group's executive director. "Wow."
Samuelson said that numerous U.S. Supreme Court rulings dating to the 1940s say in "well-settled constitutional law" that "students who refuse to participate in the pledge cannot be punished for refusing to participate."
Samuelson said he's surprised that any public school district would have such a pledge requirement, given that state law allows for students and teachers to decide not to participate. Most states have the same "opt-out" provision.
In St. Paul, said district spokesman Howie Padilla, "Students can respectfully not participate in the Pledge of Allegiance." Minneapolis schools treat pledge participation the same way.
Colleen Houglum, the principal who suspended the three, acknowledged in a statement late this morning that the policy requirement that " 'all students will stand' may need to be modified to address the protection of the individual's form of expression."
Kim Dahl said Houglum called her this morning and informed her of the possible accommodation. "I think they are handling it quite professionally," Kim Dahl said, adding that Houglum told her that school officials "are taking some steps to take the [suspensions] off their records."
That possible shift was met with disappointment from Olson. While he said he'll fall in line with whatever change may occur, "I still have my beliefs."
Earlier today, Olson said that a "very nice announcement" was made at the start of the junior high school day reminding the students that they must stand for the pledge.
Houglum said that all students this morning were "involved in some fashion" during the pledge, adding that no additional suspensions were needed.
However, the family of 14-year-old Bishop Edens told the Forum that he was suspended from school today (Friday) because he wouldn't stand for the pledge, but he was quickly invited back once Houglum said a policy change might be needed. Edens had said Thursday that he would sit in support of the other three.
"Our social studies teacher led the pledge, and that was kind of a nice change of pace," Houglum said.
Kim Dahl asked Brandt why he has been remained seated all school year, but "he didn't have an answer ... he doesn't get in trouble; he's just a normal 13-year-old."
As for today, she told Brandt to take his cell phone with him to school and text her should he run into trouble again. "I said you should probably just stand if you're not protesting something."
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