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DAMASCUS, MD - Troubled by a dismissive response from the lawyer for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) to the ACLU's April 9, 2013 letter concerning a pattern of harassment experienced by MCPS students who decline to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance (Pledge), the ACLU renewed its call for a meaningful dialogue with the school system to discuss how to ensure that students' First Amendment rights are honored by teachers and administrators. The letter sent today to the Superintendent follows up on the call for a meeting prompted by the latest such incident, brought to MCPS's attention last month, which involved intimidation and harassment directed at a Damascus High 10th grader who declined to participate in the Pledge as a way of expressing her opposition to U.S. government policies concerning Puerto Rico, where her family is from.
"The Montgomery County School System has a strong policy on student free speech, but what are school officials doing to ensure that that policy is fully understood and followed by teachers and administrators on the ground?" said David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. "Because the ACLU has received more complaints of school officials seeking to compel recitation of the Pledge from Montgomery County than any other school district, it is troubling that officials are unwilling to sit down to discuss how the situation can be improved."
Despite free speech guarantees in the Bill of Rights, state law, and in the Montgomery County School System's Regulations, the ACLU had to take action on behalf of Enidris Suirano-Rodriguez, who was repeatedly harassed and intimidated by teachers and an assistant principal for sitting quietly while the Pledge was recited. On behalf of the school system, attorney Judith Bresler asserts that school officials did nothing wrong in confronting Ms. Siurano-Rodriguez, denies that there is any systemic problem, and has refused to respond to our request for a meeting with MCPS staff to discuss our larger concerns, or to detail what steps have been or will be taken to meaningfully address the repeated complaints.
The Damascus High School incident was the fourth time the ACLU has contacted Montgomery County Public Schools concerning students' rights to decline to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance since 2005, and the sixth such occurrence reported to us from Montgomery County in the same time period. The latest incident also involved improper conduct by an assistant principal, like a similar incident in 2010 in which a middle school student was removed from a classroom by school police officers for refusing to stand for the Pledge, and in which an assistant principal said that the student should apologize for "her defiance." The MCPS spokesperson was quoted in April as saying that he was unaware of any training for staff on students' rights on this issue, despite the 2010 incident.