Debate on Pledge of Allegiance in Vt. town
The Associated Press • November 14, 2008
WOODBURY — No one's sure when daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance fell by the wayside at Woodbury Elementary School.
But efforts to restore them have erupted into a bitter dispute in this tiny (pop. 810) Vermont town, with school officials blocking the exercise from classrooms amid concerns that it holds nonparticipating children up to scorn.
Supporters say the classroom is the place for it, and the disagreement has fueled an increasingly acrimonious debate.
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"The whole thing is tearing our community apart," said Heather Lanphear, 39, the mother of a first-grade student.
Unlike other Pledge controversies, this one centers on how and where schoolchildren say it, not whether they should be allowed to.
In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schoolchildren can opt out of reciting the pledge for religious reasons.
Sixty-one years later, the court said a California father couldn't challenge the Pledge of Allegiance, reversing a lower-court decision saying teacher-led Pledge recitals in public schools were unconstitutional. That case involved an atheist who didn't want his third-grader to have to listen to the phrase "under God."
But it didn't rule on the constitutionality of compulsory recitation.
The brouhaha in the Vermont school began in September, when parent Ted Tedesco began circulating petitions calling for its return as a daily practice in the 19th-century schoolhouse, which has 55 children in grades kindergarten through six.
School officials agreed to resume the pledge as a daily exercise, but not in the classroom.
"We don't want to isolate children every day in their own classroom, or make them feel they're different," said Principal Michaela Martin.
Instead, starting last week, a sixth grade student was assigned to go around to the four classrooms before classes started, gathering up anyone who wanted to say it and then walking them up creaky wooden steps to a second-floor gymnasium, where he led them in the pledge.
About half the students chose to participate, according to Martin.
Tedesco, 55, a retired U.S. Marine Corps major, and others who signed his petitions didn't like that solution, calling it disruptive to routine and inappropriate because it put young children in the position of having to decide between pre-class play time and leaving the classroom to say the Pledge.
"Saying the Pledge in the classroom is legal, convenient and traditional," said Tedesco. "Asking kindergarten through sixth graders who want to say the Pledge to leave their classrooms to do so is neither convenient nor traditional."
Martin and School Board Chair Retta Dunlap defended the practice, saying it restored the Pledge to the school as requested, preserved the rights of students who — for political or religious reasons — didn't want to participate and gave others the opportunity to pledge their allegiance.
"I was happy to have it upstairs. I think it's important that all the kids share in it together," said parent Ellen Demers, 42.
On Friday, the routine changed again.
Just before 8 a.m., Martin herded all the school's students — and a handful of adults — into a cramped foyer that adjoins the first-floor classrooms and told sixth-grader Nathan Gilbert, 12, to lead them in the Pledge.
Most recited it; some didn't.
Afterward, 10 adults streamed down the steps and outside, forming a circle around Dunlap for a heated discussion in which they pressed for an explanation of why it couldn't be said in the classrooms.
The format is up to teachers, not administrators or parents, Dunlap said.
"The children will get used to it, and they'll know what's expected of them," she said.
In an interview, Martin said the point of having the whole school gather for the Pledge was to protect children who don't participate in it.
"If you're in a classroom with 15 students and you choose not to say the Pledge, it's much more obvious than a group setting. When they're saying it in a group of 55, it's may not be so obvious. We don't want to isolate children," she said.
Tedesco pulled his two children out of the school last week, but he says the reason was the school's declining scores on standardized tests, not the Pledge issue. He plans to continue lobbying for classroom recitation.
"There's no way a heckler's veto should abridge the constitutional rights of the majority," he said.