Arrest of local middle schooler sparks national pledge debate

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American flag flying in the wind

Alexandra Zimmer 

A sixth-grade student who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy downtown was arrested on Feb. 4 after a confrontation with his substitute teacher.

When asked by the substitute teacher why he would not stand to recite the pledge, the boy made statements expressing his belief that the U.S. flag and the national anthem were “racist” and offensive. After a further exchange of words, the substitute teacher called the office and the Dean of Students and the Lakeland Police Department Resource Officer responded. 

According to the official news release from LPD, the student was asked over 20 times to exit the classroom and refused. When the student eventually did exit the classroom, he reportedly “created another disturbance and made threats.” He was then placed under arrest at the discretion of the School Resource Officer.

“To be clear, the student was NOT arrested for refusing to participate in the pledge; students are not required to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance as noted in the Polk County School Board Code of Conduct for Students,” an LPD news release said.

The sixth-grader was charged with Disrupting a School Function and Resisting an Officer Without Violence, both of which are misdemeanor crimes. 

“I’m upset,” the student’s mother told Bay News 9. “I’m angry. I’m hurt… If any disciplinary action should’ve been taken, it should’ve been with the school. He shouldn’t have been arrested.” This conflict follows a great deal of controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem at a 2016 football game. It once again raises the issue of an individual’s right provided by the Supreme Court’s 1943 decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette to protest patriotic rituals like saying the Pledge of Allegiance or standing for the national anthem.

Separate from the drama surrounding whether or not the student was arrested for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, there is argument over whether or not the student should have been arrested for the disruption created in the classroom that day. 

The majority opinion is that Lakeland Police Department took things too far in arresting the student. Notable organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the actions of the School Resource Officer.

“This is outrageous. Students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the school house gates,” says the ACLU through their social media accounts. 

However, there are some individuals who believe that the arrest of the student was justified given claims that the student made threats against those involved. 

“Who cares? He was disrespectful,” one comment on The Ledger’s report of the incident said.

“OK so clearly this kid is not in the right. Don’t threaten to beat up the teacher,” another commenter said online.

At this time, the charges against the student have been dropped and there are no further issues pending in court. A Tampa attorney is expected to file a civil rights complaint with the Department of Education.