WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. - After a parent came to ABC Action News concerned about the way her 6-year-old son was treated by her teacher in class, the Pasco County School District sent their employees an email outlining clarifications and guidance about the rules.
The parent in Pasco County asks that we not report her name, but says her son, a first-grader at Wiregrass Elementary School in Wesley Chapel, was reprimanded by his teacher when he took a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance.
"[The teacher] told him right away to stand up and to stop it," says this concerned mom. "That is not her right. That is not her right."
Right or wrong, says this mom, she believes her son should have been allowed to express himself as long as it did not distract from the class.
"He had seen it on TV," says the mother, speaking of the many NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem this past Sunday. "He started to talk about black people that were doing it and he thought he’d do it too. It's understandable he wouldn't have the full context. We're not here at home telling him when you go to school you need to take a knee," she adds.
The mother took her concerns to the school principal Wednesday, and requested that her son be placed with another teacher. The school district says they are going to comply, but will not be disciplining the teacher for doing what she felt was right, which was telling the student to stand back up.
Pasco County School District spokesperson Linda Cobbe tells ABC Action News they feel the teacher was following the letter of the state statute, and district policy, which is that only students with a "written excuse" from parents can withdraw from, at the very least, standing during the Pledge.
But the Superintendent's Office today did issue a letter to educators about ways to handle similar situations in the future. The note specifically clarifies that students should not be compelled or required to stand.
"This means that kneeling or other non-disruptive forms of non-participation should generally be considered as permissible alternatives to the traditional recitation of the Pledge," writes Kevin Shibley, an Assistant Superintendent, in the memo provided to ABC Action News by the District.
"School Board Policy further prohibits the intimidation of any student by other students or staff for the purpose of coercing participation in the Pledge. In terms of practical application in the classroom, this means that staff should avoid public confrontations with students regarding their choice to exercise their rights under law and policy.
Once a student initially presents themselves as electing to refrain from participation in the Pledge, staff should allow the student to respectfully and silently refrain from participation and report the matter to school administration at the next reasonable opportunity," writes Shibley, an attorney.
Even this requirement for advanced written permission doesn't have any punishment tied to it, acknowledges the county. And a legal expert tells ABC Action News that's because it might not hold up in court.
"Students have free speech as long as what they do is not disruptive of the class activity or interferes with education process," says Jeffrey Swartz, a Professor of Law at Tampa's Cooley Law School. "The student kneeling did not do either of those things," adds Swartz, a former attorney and former Judge in Florida.
The problem, as Swartz sees it, is the teacher at Wiregrass Elementary School who told the student to stand back up punished the student for expressing himself.
"I see what the teacher did in singling out the student and ridiculing the student in front of the other students as a form of punishment for an exercise of free speech," says Swartz.
Swartz says the same parameters would apply to a student-athlete during the playing of the National Anthem before a sports game.