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The anthem, the pledge and the protests: A national debate comes to Texas schools

The current debate on protests during the national anthem ignited in 2016 and as the conversation continues there’s a new layer of debate at the grade school level.

More than 30 members of the Houston Texans took a knee during the National Anthem before an NFL matchup against the Seahawks in Seattle, Washington, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017. The protest was sparked by Texans owner Bob McNair, who last week said, "We can't have the inmates running the prison." McNair has since apologized twice. 

Louise Johnson recalls learning last fall that a science teacher at her daughter’s San Antonio high school was sitting — rather than standing — during the Pledge of Allegiance at morning announcements.

Johnson, who comes from a military family, was not happy when she heard from her 14-year-old that other students in the class had joined the teacher. According to her daughter, about five people would sit during the pledge and several others would sit during the national anthem at football games.

“She’s a nice teacher, but when I go to work my personal opinions are checked at the door,” Johnson said. “These are children who are very impressionable, and you shouldn’t be able to put your politics on them.”

But Coppell resident Phil Berne sees things differently. His son is 8 and has not been part of any protests, but if he someday decided to sit during the pledge or the national anthem to demonstrate for something he believed in, Berne would be proud.

Berne said that choosing to stay seated — or stay silent — isn’t disrespectful or disruptive.

“It doesn’t stop a football game if the players take a knee during the anthem, but it does get people asking questions about why it’s happening and I think that’s an effective protest — or it should be,” Berne said.

Protesting racial injustice hits Texas public schools

The recent national debate over protests during the national anthem began in 2016, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick opted to sit — and later kneel — during the anthem to protest racial injustice. The issue received even greater attention after President Donald Trump denounced athletes who didn't stand for the anthem. Critics of Kaepernick and those who joined him say their actions disrespect people who have fought and died for the country, while proponents of the protests argue they bring attention to racial injustices, including many controversial police shootings that have rocked the nation.

As the national debate continues to ragesimilar demonstrations are taking place at the grade school level. There have been reports in Texas school districts of students and teachers kneeling during the national anthem or sitting during the pledge — something that, while legal, has stirred controversy. Right now, two Texas students in Houston are suing their respective high schools claiming they faced harassment for sitting during the pledge.

The issue of whether and how to protest is one that’s gathering steam — and dividing students and parents alike.

Johnson said she pulled her daughter out of the public charter school she had been attending in San Antonio for a number of reasons — including her disappointment that the school didn’t take action against the teacher who sat during the pledge. She added that even though several children in the class joined the protest, she wouldn’t allow her daughter to participate.

“[My daughter] had mixed emotions,” Johnson said. “She was like, ‘I know it’s her right [to protest] and I understand why she’s doing it, but I know as our family we’re not supposed to do it because we feel it’s disrespectful.’”

“She was torn,” Johnson added, “so I made it simple for her and told her she’s not allowed to do that.”

But other parents say they’re supportive of such protests and that kneeling — or sitting — sends a strong message.  

“The silent protest is a powerful thing to look at and see,” Berne said. “I think it sends a powerful message and one that’s in tune with what the Civil Rights Movement has been doing for decades.”

“There are more protections in law for the students”

Despite conflicting opinions on the issue, sitting or kneeling during the pledge and the anthem is legal under both state and federal law.

Under the Texas Education Code, the board of trustees for each public school district and open-enrollment charter school in the state must require students to recite the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag and the Texas flag once during each school day. However, students may be excused from participating on written request from a parent or guardian. State law also allows parents to remove their children temporarily from any school activity — including the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem — that conflicts with their religious or moral beliefs.

Federal statute agrees: in 1943, the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette that a student could not be forced to stand for the pledge.

Texas public schools must also provide for the observance of one minute of silence following the recitation of the pledges. “During the one-minute period, each student may, as the student chooses, reflect, pray, meditate, or engage in any other silent activity that is not likely to interfere with or distract another student,” the code reads. According to Craig Wood, an attorney with the Walsh Gallegos law firm in San Antonio, sitting during the moment of silence or the pledge doesn’t constitute distracting another student.

“You wouldn’t, for instance, be permitted to talk during the Pledge of Allegiance or to run around the classroom,” Wood said. “But I think that just the mere act of sitting during that time period is probably the least intrusive way that an individual student would have of expressing his or her opinion.”

While public school districts are required to honor the flags and adhere to a moment of silence, anything further would be a matter of local policy and “those policies are not reported to the Texas Education Association,” said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the state agency. Private schools are not under the agency's jurisdiction.

Culbertson added that the TEA was not aware of any widespread reports from schools that kids aren’t standing for the pledge — “but districts are not required to report that information to us,” she said. Despite this, there have been scattered reports at school districts across the state that students are choosing to silently protest racial injustice during the pledge and the national anthem.

Before kickoff at a weekend game in September, a group of roughly six Austin High School football players kneeled on the sidelines during the national anthem. A group of cheerleaders from McCallum High School in Austin took a knee at a separate game.

During the same month, two Texas students — one at Klein Oak High School in Spring and another at Windfern High School in Houston — reported being harassed by fellow students and disciplined by school officials for sitting during the anthem. The teens are now bringing separate lawsuits against their schools, alleging that their First Amendment rights were violated.

Several Texas Republican officials have vocally opposed National Football League players who opt to kneel, raise their fists, lock arms or stay in locker rooms during the national anthem in protest of racial violence in the United States. Few, if any, have weighed in on protests at the middle and high school level, however. And from a legal standpoint, experts say students arguably have more leeway than NFL players when it comes to protesting.

“Because public schools are run by the government instead of a private industry [such as the NFL], there are more protections in law for the students when it comes right down it,” said Joy Baskin, the director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards.

“The fact that the NFL is permitting the protests reflects their understanding of life in a civic society, but I don’t think it’s because they’re legally compelled to,” Baskin added. “The First Amendment sets a limitation on the government and on how school districts can respond” to students sitting during the pledge.

Tell us your story

Texas parents: Is your kid protesting during the Pledge of Allegiance, or have you heard reports that a teacher at your student’s school is standing or kneeling for either the pledge or the national anthem?

Texas students: What are your thoughts about protests during the pledge and national anthem? Tweet us your thoughts using the hashtag #MyTexasTake.

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