Perspective tempers South Portland debate over Pledge of Allegiance

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The faculty leadership team at South Portland High School was expected to make a decision by the end of this week on a student-led proposal to alter how the Pledge of Allegiance is recited each morning.

Senior Class President Lily SanGiovanni, Vice President Morrigan Turner and Secretary Gaby Ferrell made their second, formal proposal last week to the 12-member faculty team. They want to rewrite the daily invitation to students to stand for the pledge and adopt a policy stating that no teacher can force a student to stand. 

“Right now, the class officers read the pledge and then the announcements,” Principal Ryan Caron said this week. “The change would be … instead of ‘Please rise for the Pledge,’ they would say, ‘At this time you are invited to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance.'”

Additionally, it was requested that the policy be posted in the school office, and discussion of the pledge be added to the student handbook and discussed with students at the beginning of each school year.

Last fall, SanGiovanni, Ferrell and Turner presented an initial alternative of the Pledge routine to the Faculty Leadership Team: instead of reciting it in unison each morning, a moment of silence could be offered as an alternative.

It wasn’t really ever an issue of whether or not students understand their rights, Caron said, but rather the medium of participation via intercom making students feel more pressured to participate than they otherwise would. 

The team rejected the proposal, 11-1, after deciding the change wasn’t necessary.

The debate was reignited in late January, when SanGiovanni, while leading the morning ritual, tacked on the words, “if you’d like to” at the end of her request for students and staff to stand and participate in the pledge.

“That took place for a few days,” Caron said Wednesday.

It never became a students-against-teachers situation, he said. But because approval is required, it seemed as if the added request was disregarding the necessary process of approval from the faculty.

“It was reported (in the press) that faculty members were upset, (but) they’re questioning was never about what the kids were saying, it was more about the process,” Caron said.

From there, Caron said he reached out to the girls to craft another proposal for the Faculty Leadership Team.

Response, perception

Under Maine and federal law, participation in the Pledge of Allegiance is not required. Schools within the state are required to “allow” students to participate at some point during the school day. 

The girls knew this and so did Caron, but what they found is that many others didn’t.

“Prior to this issue coming to light and us advocating for a change, many students have told me they were unaware of their rights regarding participation in the pledge because they had been mislead by staff members,” Ferrell said in an email Wednesday.

While Ferrell said she believes most students in South Portland and in southern Maine understand that it’s optional, it’s still important to formalize that point.

“I do think that adopting the procedure we have proposed is still important, because there is currently no written procedure that states how the pledge will be introduced and specifically outlines student rights, and staff and student conduct during the pledge.”

If the procedure is adopted, Ferrell said, “there will be no more ambiguity or opportunities for faculty to subvert the law. The procedure will also be clearly articulated at the beginning of each year so that new students will be fully aware of their rights.” 

Almost all teachers have been “at least civil through the entire situation,” Ferrell said.

“Many have been overtly supportive of our efforts and offered any help and encouragement they could, especially Mr. Caron,” she added.

The public response “kind of took on a life of its own” and has been much more scathing – and based on information that “just isn’t factual,” Caron said.

“There’s been some frustration with faculty here,” he said, “because we’ve been working with the girls in a cooperative way throughout.”

The decision

The faculty leadership team typically only meets once a month. But because the proposal is timely, Caron asked for an expedited decision. As of Wednesday, he had received feedback from five of the 12 members, he said, and all were in support of the proposal.

Even if the remaining members don’t support it – which Caron said he thinks is unlikely – he said “they (wouldn’t be) saying that it isn’t a good proposal, I think they would purely be saying it’s not an issue at the high school.”

Discussion of the Pledge will still be added to the student handbook and discussed at the beginning of each school year, starting next year, simply because, “it makes sense,” he said.

The principal said he is proud of Ferrell, SanGiovanni and Turner, because contrary to what has been publicly perceived as a debate over people’s rights, “it really is a story of students working with a school to make changes in a Pledge of Allegiance procedure.”

“I think its great,” Caron said. “Students understanding their rights and trying to make a change. I also think it’s great for districts to allow students to make that change. South Portland is a great place to be.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.