With the trustee and budget vote on the horizon, the decision by several New Paltz School Board members to sit during the Pledge of Allegiance has drawn renewed attention. Each of the four New Paltz School Board members who don’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance provided some feedback as to why for this article.
Having been elected last year to her seat, Kathy Preston said, “As both an atheist and a pacifist, I have not recited the pledge in its entirety since I was 12 years old. I respect anyone’s decision and right to sit, stand, recite the pledge in full or in part, or remain quietly seated.”
Sophia Skiles is completing the second year of her three-year term. She explained her position at length. “Up until being elected to the Board of Education, I had not regularly heard the pledge since elementary school. As a standard part of the board agenda, it really made me reflect on its ideas and words.
“I became deeply curious about the pledge’s origins (penned by a socialist pastor in 1891, it included an arm gesture that so resembled the Nazi salute that it was changed to the current right hand on the heart), its use in times of national anxiety (coinciding with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1891 and the Geary Act of 1892), and the evolution of the pledge (the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in 1954 amid fears of communism).
“During the fall of 2016, my then-third grader was beginning to learn the pledge in Spanish and I was deeply struck by the disconnection between the pledge’s words and the growing anti-immigrant rhetoric and the specific disparaging of Mexicans, as well as a national call for a Muslim ban. The summer of 2016 also saw the deaths of an increasing number of unarmed black Americans. It was difficult or impossible to see liberty and justice for all.
“The more I reflected on this context and the ongoing parallels to today, the more troubled I felt speaking or even standing during the pledge. It felt dishonest and complicit, it didn’t feel respectful. It felt like hiding in order to conform. Remaining seated, however uncomfortable, simply felt more honest. In no way do I assume to impose my understanding of the pledge onto others’ decisions to stand or sit, speak or be silent. I assume honesty in how others choose to participate in the pledge according to what it personally means to them. I appreciate considering the words and value the pledge’s inclusion on the agenda and in our children’s classrooms. Making time for it inspires me to look for ways to bridge where we fall short of the promise of “justice for all” in practice, particularly as a school board member.
“I consulted with the general counsel of the New York State School Board Associations in September of 2016, who confirmed that sitting for the pledge is not in violation of the board oath, or any laws and is in fact, like a student’s right to do so, a constitutionally-protected form of free speech per West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943). I also recognize that while legally protected, sitting for the pledge does not make it socially acceptable, and yet we encourage our kids to act on what they feel is right, however unsettling it might be to stick out or question accepted norms. We encourage our children to be critical thinkers. They learn about historical injustice and they likely see and hear how those injustices and discriminatory rhetoric persist today. As across many K-12 schools, there have been bias incidents among our children. I often wonder what do kids think of when they are faced with saying ‘liberty and justice for all’ every school day? I hope by sitting, I can respectfully create space for any student who is grappling with the gap between the reality and the ideals of the pledge.”
Asked about reaction from members of the public, Skiles said, “I think it does create tension, risking the offense of many who interpret standing for the pledge as an unambiguous gesture of respect for those who served, sacrificed or currently serve in defense of this country. Occasionally, members of the public have expressed that offense at public comment, but after this past week, there has absolutely been a heightened sense of attention and outrage due to a video taken during the pledge that has since been shared widely online. I think social media tends to dilute our ability to communicate over differences and disagreements and often radically fuels them. Despite the viral fervor, there has also been a very measured exchange among some of how the pledge means different things to different people, as well as of the paradox of culturally coercive gestures of respect in the name of freedom.
“One of the factors of offense includes concerns over what we are modeling for our children. I sincerely hope that one of the things we can model is how we approach disagreements and even anger with each other.” She also shared that she has personally reached out to at least one person who left a meeting visibly upset after the recitation.
Board vice president Alison Easton is not seeking reelection this year, and will be cycling off the board. “Speaking for only myself, my decision to sit during the Pledge of Allegiance was not done lightly. I sit because I am deeply troubled by both the current racial inequities that exist in our country, communities, and schools as well as the inaction to address them. As a board member, I’ve worked hard to be part of the momentum to create dialogue and solutions. I do not expect everyone to agree with my actions. To me, patriotism is not about pledges and oaths. It is a definition grounded in service to community and the people in it.”
Brian Cournoyer, seeking reelection this month, also had a detailed response. “I have recited the pledge of allegiance thousands of times over the course of my life,” he wrote. “I also take an oath as a school board member to uphold the Constitution of the State of New York and the Constitution of the United States. The final words of the pledge are ‘with liberty and justice for all.’ That is a very lofty aspiration, but one we have yet to attain as a nation. Over the past several years, as I’ve dived deeper and deeper into the workings of public education, poverty and social/economic mobility and justice, it’s become increasingly clear to me that not everyone in America enjoys liberty and justice in equal measure. For that reason, at this time, I choose to sit and reflect on those aspirations — the promise of America that brings people here from far and wide — rather than to stand and pledge to something we haven’t yet achieved. I respect that some people feel differently, and those feelings can be strong, and they’re entitled to the way they feel. I’m sorry some think my action is disrespectful. That is not my intent. I have family who served, including my uncle in Viet Nam, and both grandfathers in World War II, and I’m thankful for all who do. But I don’t believe the measure of my patriotism is whether or not I stand up, or speak certain words, and military service isn’t the only kind of service. I show my patriotism by my service to this community. I get up five days a week at 5:30 a.m., and work an eight- to ten-hour day. Once a week, with a few exceptions, I go to a board meeting or a committee meeting after work for anywhere from 90 minutes to as many as six hours, and spend uncounted hours of my own time reading and research in preparation for school board work and meetings. It’s all volunteer. And I’m not complaining. I love doing it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be asking the voters to elect me again. I hope people will judge me on the work that I do on behalf of students, teachers and taxpayers, rather than on an issue that’s deeply personal, and that everyone feels differently about. When I sit, I’m doing so in recognition of Americans for whom the promise of America hasn’t yet materialized. That’s the only reason. It’s not about disrespect.”
Cournoyer also referenced how people have reacted to this recent revelation of a longstanding practice. “Until this week, I’d received almost no feedback about it at all, so it’s fair to say that the volume and tenor changed after the last meeting. The reactions have been mixed. I’ve had some angry e-mails, and some supportive ones, too. No one has threatened me, but it’s disheartening. It’s unfortunate that the way people handle things they don’t like or disagree with is to gather their forces and attack, rather than trying to understand someone else’s point of view; and I’m not leaving myself out of that. We all do it sometimes.”