Thomas Jendrock Student Activist Award
By Hannah McDaniel
Our son, Alex, started kindergarten the way most children do — full of energy and excitement. Unfortunately, that feeling quickly went by the wayside and turned into anguish at the hands of his principal and our public school district.
The problem was that Alex did not want to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance at his school in Illinois. My husband and I are atheists, and we supported our son’s decision to not participate in the pledge. We’ve always raised Alex with full personal autonomy, as long as it didn’t harm him or anyone else. What that means to us is that he has a right to choose his actions and that all his thoughts/questions/feelings are valid. So, we supported him.
I suppose I had some naiveté thinking that the process of Alex not participating in the pledge wouldn’t be a huge deal. After all, it has been legally upheld that it is a student’s right not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. The law is on our side, and I thought that alone would be enough if we were to run into an issue with a member of the school staff. I never could have imagined the immense struggle and contention that would follow.
When Alex came to us and said that he didn’t like reciting the pledge and he didn’t want to participate, we told him that he didn’t have to and that he could just sit quietly.
But after Alex would come home angry and frustrated, we quickly found out that his principal was making him stand and participate in the pledge. I thought it must just be some sort of misunderstanding, and we assured Alex we’d take care of it.
I spoke with his principal and it was in that moment that I found out she was making him participate. She told me that him not standing and participating in the pledge was disrespectful toward HER! I was baffled. I informed her of the law and contacted the district assistant superintendent. I spoke with her and she told me that this shouldn’t be an issue and she would speak with the principal.
We once again instructed Alex to sit quietly during the pledge. Meanwhile, the fire grew within him like a slow burn. We found out that when he had been trying to sit quietly during the pledge, he was instead sent to the principal’s office each morning.
Alex would seemingly be fine at school because he was able to bottle up the frustration he felt. Then, one day, after this had happened multiple times, the floodgates opened and a steady torrent of pent up anguish poured out of him.
Obviously, this didn’t sit well with us. We wouldn’t allow our son to be sent to the principal’s office for exercising his constitutional rights.
During a meeting with the principal and Alex’s teacher, Alex’s father and I brought up the pledge issue again, but the principal wasn’t letting this go. She wasn’t going to cooperate or follow the law. I knew we were getting nowhere with her and the district. I told her that Alex’s father and I would discuss how we were going to handle it going forward. That was the politest way I could let her know that no, we weren’t going to let this go, either. We have our son’s back, always.
Reached out to FFRF
We chose to reach out to the Freedom From Religion Foundation to see if it might help us. We had seen the work it’s done, particularly with public school districts. We desperately hoped that FFRF might take up Alex’s cause and help us. Thankfully, we received an email from Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne. That email set in motion so many things to follow.
Ryan contacted the district and let them know what it was doing was illegal. He received correspondence from the district superintendent that was callous and, quite frankly, rude. He boldly stated that Ryan was wrong, that we were wrong, too, and that our son had never been sent to the principal’s office. We were told in this first letter from the superintendent that an internal investigation would be done. To my knowledge, this investigation never happened.
Days passed, and Alex was still sent to the principal’s office every morning for attempting to sit quietly during the pledge. It got to a point where he would try very hard to make himself late to school, so that he could go to breakfast once he got there and conveniently not have to join the rest of the school population for the pledge because he was still eating breakfast. He can be quite clever for a 6-year-old.
We waited to hear from the district’s legal department, but each day Alex was still being sent to the office. Ryan and Sam Grover, another FFRF staff attorney, spoke with us about the possible next step of suing the district. Thankfully, shortly thereafter, Ryan received correspondence from the superintendent. While the superintendent disputed several factual details about the school’s pledge policy, in the end he did concede that students must be allowed to opt out of the pledge.
Since then, things have gone well for Alex. He sits quietly for the pledge every day and is no longer sent to the principal’s office because of it. It’s no big deal to him anymore to be able to sit, which is a wonderful improvement! Our family is so thankful that the final chapter in this saga ended happily.
We would like to encourage anyone experiencing a separation of church and state issue to please, speak up! We know that it can sometimes be a long and difficult road to be on the right side of history, but know that it is worth it. You can do it, though it might seem insurmountable at times. There is support. Reach out to others, reach out to FFRF. There is a community of like-minded individuals who will band beside you and rally against injustice.
We would like to extend our deepest gratitude to FFRF in its continued support in our efforts to advocate for our son. Ryan and the entire FFRF team have worked tirelessly with us as we went up against the school district. We are honored that Alex will be the recipient of FFRF’s $500 Thomas Jendrock Student Activist Award.