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Teen resolute in fight to have pledge said in classrooms

Arlington school board deadlocked on issue

“I believe we owe it to those who fought,’’ said Sean Harrington, 17, a senior at Arlington High School. “I believe we owe it to those who fought,’’ said Sean Harrington, 17, a senior at Arlington High School. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / June 30, 2010

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With a line of military service in his family dating to the War of 1812, Sean Harrington sees the Pledge of Allegiance as something he owes to the men and women who have died fighting for this country.

“It’s a living and breathing statement that basically strengthens a bond a person has with their country,’’ said the 17-year-old Arlington High School student.

But Harrington’s fight to persuade Arlington officials to require the pledge be led in every school has been a frustrating lesson in freedom of speech.

Last week, Harrington, a senior, presented the Arlington School Committee with a petition, signed by more than 700 people, to require that the pledge be led in all the town’s schools each day. The committee deadlocked, 3 to 3, on a motion that would have required a daily, but voluntary, recitation of the pledge to be led over the intercom.

Yesterday, after a week of controversy in town, a compromise surfaced: The Arlington High principal said he’d lead the pledge in the lobby of Arlington High School every morning five minutes before school begins. Principal Charles Skidmore said anyone who wishes to say the pledge can do so in the lobby, and he believes the plan is a good compromise to Harrington’s proposal.

But Harrington, who wanted the pledge said in all of the schools, said the pledge belongs in the classroom, and he does not believe the principal’s idea of saying it before school in the lobby would work among students, who would then have to hurry to class.

Harrington, an associate member of Arlington’s Republican Town Committee and founder of the high school’s Teenage Republican group, said he “teared up’’ when his proposal failed.

Joseph Curro, School Committee chairman, who voted in favor of voluntary recitation of the pledge, said some members in the audience taunted the deadlocked committee.

“They told us to go back to our own countries,’’ Curro said.

Judson Pierce, a School Committee member, who voted against the proposal, said that while he honors the pledge, he wants to do more research into state and federal laws before passing a policy for the district. He wants to be sure that the rights of those who do not want to say the pledge are protected.

State law requires that teachers lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance each day, bit the state Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion in 1977 saying that it would be unconstitutional to discipline a teacher or student who chose not to say the pledge. The US Supreme Court has also said that making students recite the pledge is contrary to the First Amendment.

But students and teachers should still be given the opportunity to say the pledge, said JC Considine, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“It’s our opinion that schools each day should provide students and teachers the opportunity to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, but that neither individual students nor teachers may be required to do so,’’ Considine said.

Considine said anyone who is concerned that a school district is not following state law regarding the Pledge of Allegiance could file an inquiry or a complaint with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, but the department encourages issues to be addressed first with local officials.

Curro said the current practice of Arlington schools is to leave the decision up to principals about whether the Pledge of Allegiance is said in their buildings.

That is also the case in neighboring Cambridge.

But Chris Saheed, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School principal, said the pledge is broadcast schoolwide at his high school each day and individual recitation is optional.

At Collins Middle School in Salem, the principal, Mary Manning, said students at her school were not saying the pledge when she started the job in the 1980s. Manning said she changed that, and students now sign up to lead the pledge over the intercom each day.

But Manning said some students choose not to say the pledge because of religious reasons.

“That is a freedom that is guaranteed to them, too,’’ Manning said.

Pierce, who chairs the Arlington School Committee’s subcommittee on policy and procedures, said he wants to make sure that any policy Arlington approves about saying the pledge will also honor and respect those who choose not to participate.

“I don’t want to create further bullying practices because kids are choosing not to say it,’’ Pierce said.

Harrington said that he believes in freedom of speech and that those who do not wish to say the pledge should not be required to do so.

“The Pledge of Allegiance is a big part of who we are,’’ said Harrington. “I just can’t understand why we can’t at least have it on the [public announcement] system, because I believe we owe it to those who fought.’’

He said his patriotism pushes almost everything he does. Three years ago, when Harrington was a freshman at Arlington High School, he was surprised to find that many classrooms did not even have American flags. Back then, he persuaded school officials to install the flags.

Now he is on to the pledge, and Harrington said that he has had a number of politicians sign his petition and that since the School Committee’s vote last week he has had a surge of people reach out to him with words of support.

Pierce said he’s also been getting feedback, both positive and negative, about the vote. He said he would like the School Committee to discuss the pledge further.

“I’m not going to give up on this,’’ Harrington said. “It is a righteous cause to me. I will do whatever I can to make sure there is policy made on this.’’

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.

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