Indiana Teacher, Principal Sued After Forcing 8-Year-Old Student to Say Pledge of Allegiance

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Fuqua Elementary School principal Mary Beth Harris. Credit: vigoco.k12.in.us

An elementary school teacher and principal in Terre Haute, Ind. violated the constitutional rights of an 8-year-old boy by forcing him to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday, June 2.

Parent Jamie Porter filed the complaint on behalf of her son, who she said is still “extremely upset” over the incident that happened earlier this year. Porter and her son, identified as A. B. in the suit, are seeking compensatory and punitive damages, payment of attorneys fees, and a jury trial, according to local paper the Tribune Star.

The ACLU of Indiana is representing the family.

In the suit, Porter accuses Fuqua Elementary School principal Mary Beth Harris and teacher Kelly McFarland of punishing her then-7-year-old son after he refused to rise and recite the Pledge of Allegiance with the rest of the class.

“The law is clear that the government may not compel anyone, including public school students, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or to stand when it is delivered,” the lawsuit states.

Rather than allow A.B. to exercise his right to sit quietly, McFarland reportedly removed him from class and escorted him to the principal’s office. The lawsuit claims that the first grader was later forced to recite the Pledge with Harris. ACLU-Indiana called the act a ” … flagrant denial of A.B.’s rights under the First Amendment.”

The lawsuit contends A.B. wasn’t disruptive when he refused to stand for the pledge back in March. When asked why he didn’t stand, the boy stated, “He was doing it to protest the government of the United States, as it was racist, greedy and does not care about people,” according to the suit. That’s when McFarland “responded by grabbing his hand and taking him to the office of the principal.”

The teacher told Harris she was having some “trouble” with A.B., who was forced to sit in the principal’s office for 20 minutes before returning to class. The complaint notes that the boy had never been sent to the principal’s office before and was “extremely upset about this, as he believed he was being punished for having done something wrong.”

The trouble didn’t end there for the 7-year-old, however. Harris reportedly approached A.B. in front of his class as lunch was ending that day, pulled him out of the line and took him to a different part of the school. There, she told him they were going to “practice” reciting the pledge and then forced him to say it along with her, the complaint said.

In a phone conversation, Harris told A.B.’s mom that while students are not required to say the pledge, they must stand for it. The suit notes, however, that “the principal confirmed that she had said the pledge with A.B. but did not explain how this was consistent with her earlier statement that children were not required to recite the Pledge.”

“A.B. remains extremely upset about going to school,” according to the complaint. “He has always felt that he was an outsider and this, compounded by his father’s [recent] death, makes these feelings even worse. He is suffering continuing anxiety and harm because of this incident.”

The suit goes to to argue that the actions taken by Harris and McFarland were “reckless” and a display of “wanton disregard of clear law that indicates that a student may sit quietly during the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Porter’s complaint doesn’t specify the amount of damages she’s seeking.

The Vigo County School District’s attorney Jonathan Mayes of Bose, McKinney and Evans, told the Tribune Star that the school is currently reviewing the complaint and “has no comment at this time.”

Officials at ACLU-Indiana didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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