April 18, 2016 12:40 AM

[Editor's Note: KATC also reported on this story and identifies the student as Raymond Smith. Read their report and watch a video package on the story by clicking here.]

The Lafayette Parish School Board is expected to revisit system policy regarding the Pledge of Allegiance after a student at Acadiana High School exercised his well-established constitutional right to remain seated and not participate in the morning pledge, prompting a teacher at AHS to allegedly repeatedly badger the student over a perceived lack of patriotism.

According to a report in The Advertiser, Superintendent Donald Aguillard says the school system will consider nixing a policy that requires students to stand during the Pledge, even if they don’t recite it for religious or personal reasons. The change in course comes after Aguillard and AHS Principal David LeJeune received a letter from the Appignani Humanist Legal Center citing the students’ confrontations with the teacher, identified in the letter simply as “Mr. Romero.”

According to the letter, Romero directed an expletive containing the “F word” at the student, questioned his patriotism and suggested the student move to another country during a series of morning imbroglios regarding the students’ unwillingness to stand and recite the Pledge. The student, identified only as a male junior at Acadiana High, was sent to the office and, according to the letter, told incorrectly by the school administration that Pledge policy is up to the discretion of each teacher.

If it can be established that Romero did indeed direct an expletive at the student, the teacher should be commensurately disciplined. And if Acadiana High’s website is up-to-date, there’s only one male Romero teaching at the school. He’s an assistant coach for football and track, teaches physical education and, astonishingly, teaches civics. Mr. Romero needs a refresher course in civics, and in U.S. constitutional law and the many precedents establishing that refusing to stand for and/or recite the Pledge of Allegiance is itself a form of expression protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The law is settled in this matter. Mr. Romero is presumably one of those unfortunately all too typical low-information citizens who agrees with the First Amendment only when he agrees with the content of the expression. But the student is right, Romero is wrong and the school system needs to drop any policy in contravention of the student’s constitutional right.

Here’s the letter sent to Aguillard and LeJeune from the AHLC:

Dear Dr. Aguillard and Mr. LeJeune,

A student from Acadiana High School has contacted our office to request assistance with regard to a very serious constitutional violation that is occurring under the authority of your school and school district. The student, currently in eleventh grade, reports that he has been badly mistreated by his teacher for exercising his constitutional right to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance, and that school administration is supporting the teacher’s misconduct and failing to protect the student. As you should know, the right of students to opt out of Pledge participation was settled long ago by the United States Supreme Court in
West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette , 319 U.S. 624 (1943). Consequently, any actions by your school or its agents infringing upon that right would be actionable as a serious constitutional violation.

The student in question, for personal and religious reasons, does not wish to participate in the Pledge exercise in any manner. On Monday, April 11, he tried to remain seated during the recitation, but says he was intimidated into standing by his teacher, Mr. Romero, who reportedly used an expletive, yelling at the student and calling him “f---ing disrespectful.” The following day the student decided that he would try to find the strength to abide by his principles despite whatever bullying the teacher might inflict upon him. When he remained seated, the teacher took him out into the hall and lectured him about soldiers dying (apparently suggesting that opting out of the Pledge was somehow an insult to the military — an interpretation that is, of course, the subjective opinion of the teacher). The teacher then improperly demanded to know why the student wished to sit out, to which the student — who remained respectful at all times — replied that the exercise posed a religious conflict. The teacher was dismissive, saying there was no religious conflict, and warned that the student would be “taken to the office” if he continued to opt out. Then today, April 13, before the Pledge was even recited, Mr. Romero reportedly took the student out to the hall and again badgered the student for wishing to not participate in the exercise, telling the student he should move to a different country. The student tried to end the conversation several times, but the teacher would not allow it. Mr. Romero said the student would be written up each day if he didn’t participate, adding that he (the teacher) had the support of administration on the issue. He then sent the student to the office.

The student’s nightmare did not end there. This horrific treatment — of a young man who wishes nothing but to opt out of a voluntary exercise — was compounded when the student went to the office, where he was told (incorrectly) that federal law “has no say” on the matter and that Mr. Romero has the right to set his own rules regarding Pledge participation. He was then told that he would be required to take his class in the guidance office if he refused to participate in the morning exercise. The student tried to explain himself but was told that he was being “disrespectful.” He was then asked whether he had been allowed to opt out of the exercise at his last school, to which he said yes. He was then told, in what he reports was a very rude and unprofessional manner, that he “should have stayed at ECA where you can do what you want.”

The student’s rights in this situation, as will be explained in more detail below, are very clear, and the treatment he has received from your school and school district is reprehensible. The professional conduct of your staff toward this student has been shameful, in direct conflict with the high-minded principles of freedom upon which this nation was founded. Based on the above, we demand the following assurances: (1) That students and teachers in your school district be advised that students may stay seated for any Pledge exercise at the school and that any policy containing a standing requirement be rescinded; (2) That teachers be instructed that under no circumstances should they attempt to persuade students to refrain from exercising the right to nonparticipation, question students as to the reason for nonparticipation, or characterize opting out as misconduct or otherwise wrongful; and (3) That the student be allowed to return to his classroom, rather than be placed in the guidance office, and that no disciplinary or other retaliatory measures of any kind will be directed toward any student for nonparticipation in the Pledge exercise.

The American Humanist Association (AHA) is a national nonprofit organization with over 530,000 supporters and members across the country, including many in Louisiana. The mission of AHA’s legal center is to protect one of the most fundamental principles of our democracy: the First Amendment rights to free speech and religious liberty. Our legal center includes a network of cooperating attorneys from around the country, including Louisiana, and we have litigated constitutional cases in state and federal courts from coast to coast. Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Barnette, federal courts have irrefutably recognized the First Amendment right of students to remain silent and seated during the Pledge.

That “students have a constitutional right to remain seated during the Pledge is well established.” [legal citations] ...

Indeed, the federal appellate courts have been unanimous in concluding that public school officials are prohibited from compelling students to stand during the Pledge. [legal citations] ...

Federal district courts and state courts have also consistently ruled that students have a constitutional right to remain silent and seated during the Pledge. [legal citations] ...

The student here does not deserve to be disciplined merely because he chooses to exercise his constitutional rights. Indeed, instead of rote recitation, he has given thoughtful consideration of the underlying issues raised by the exercise, and this should, if anything, earn him the respect of teachers. ...

In Banks, the court applied Tinker to the act of refusing to stand for the Pledge and held: “The conduct of Andrew Banks in refusing to stand during the pledge ceremony constituted an expression of his religious beliefs and political opinions. His refusal to stand was no less a form of expression than the wearing of the black armband was to Mary Beth Tinker. He was exercising a right ‘akin to pure speech.’” 314 F. Supp at 295. Importantly, not only do students have the right to silently sit during the Pledge, but they also have a right to affirmatively protest the Pledge exercise. See Holloman, 370 F.3d at 1273-74 (raising fist during Pledge was protected speech even if fellow classmates found it objectionable and distracting). Referring to Banks, the Eleventh Circuit pointed out in Holloman that “its ruling was not based on Banks’s First Amendment right to remain silent, but his First Amendment right to affirmatively express himself .” 370 F.3d at 1273-74 (emphasis added).

We are most hopeful that you will recognize the concerns raised by this letter and address them properly. Please respond within seven (7) days. We thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.

Very truly yours, Monica Miller, Esq.


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