PITTSBURGH (CN) – A mother claims in Federal Court that her daughter’s middle school harassed and suspended the girl – and threatened to charge her with “disorderly conduct” – for sitting quietly in her seat rather than standing for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Carolyn Raja sued the Brownsville Area School district, its Superintendent Phillip Savini Jr., Brownsville Area Middle School Principal Vincent Nesser and middle school teacher Jessica VanMeter, on behalf of her eighth-grade daughter.
Raja claims Principal Nesser persisted “in his efforts to punish and humiliate” her daughter for her constitutionally protected speech despite two letters from her and a phone call from her attorney.
Raja says her daughter, N.B., is an “A student” who chose to sit quietly for the pledge “due to personal beliefs regarding the state of the country.”
On April 17, N.B.’s homeroom teacher, defendant VanMeter, asked the girl to stand for the pledge. When the girl politely refused, VanMeter “admonished N.B. in front of the entire class, with references to her disrespect for all the soldiers dying for her overseas,” and threatened her with disciplinary action, the mom says.
Raja says she called Principal Nesser the next day, and he told her that despite the lack of a written rule or policy, “it was his expectation that students must and will stand during the recital of the pledge.”
When N.B. refused to stand for the pledge that day, VanMeter gave her a lunch detention, the mom says.
Raja called Superintendent Phillip Savini Jr., who affirmed Nesser’s policy and told her that “if necessary he would issue a written rule making it clear that it was mandatory for students to stand during the pledge of allegiance,” the mother says.
So the day after that, Raja says, she attended a school board to voice her concerns about the constitutionality of the unwritten pledge policy.
The school board backed its administrators and told Raja that her daughter “would continue to be written up for not following staff instructions,” according to the complaint.
The unequal standoff continued for the next two school days. N.B. continued to refuse to stand for the pledge. She was given two days of in-school suspension and warned that “the next incident would result in an out-of-school suspension.”
On her second day in in-school suspension, April 24, Raja’s attorney wrote to the school, telling it “to immediately cease and desist their enforcement of the policy and the resulting sanctions against N.B for the girl’s exercise of a cherished First Amendment right.”
Raja claims that on April 25, when she picked up her daughter from school, she heard Principal Nesser discussing N.B. on the telephone, saying “that if she continued to refuse to stand he would ‘turn one of the write ups into a disorderly conduct.'”
Raja says VanMeter called her on April 26 to tell her that, on Nesser’s instructions, she would continue to discipline N.B. every day that she refused to stand.
Despite an additional warning from Raja’s attorney in a telephone conversation and follow-up letter, N.B. was written up again and called to Nesser’s office with VanMeter.
According to the complaint: “Defendant Nesser told N.B. that he did not appreciate her actions, which he said got him ‘yelled at.’ He told N.B. that he had ordered the write ups to prove the point to N.B. that she ‘couldn’t win this argument.’ He then stated that he was not putting the most recent write up into the system, but plaintiff does not know or understand the import of that statement.
“The District’s policy requiring students to stand for the pledge of allegiance compels speech in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Defendants’ punishment of N.B. for remaining seated during the pledge of allegiance amounts to retaliation for constitutionally protected activity.
“Defendants’ insistence on punishing N.B. in a way that affects her education, exposes her to public humiliation and potentially harms her future academic opportunities is not only excessive and unlawful, it is willful, wanton and malicious, causing irreparable injury.
“Defendants’ actions are producing ongoing irreparable harm for which there is no adequate remedy at law.
“N.B. has suffered injury as a result of the School District’s actions, including, but not limited to, emotional pain and suffering and injury to her reputation.”
Raja seeks punitive damages from the individual defendants, for constitutional violations, and wants them and the school district enjoined from enforcing its unconstitutional policy, and a public announcement rescinding the policy.
She is represented by Witold Walczak with the ACLU of Pennsylvania.