North Carolina’s General Assembly this year tweaked its decade-old law requiring schools to say the Pledge of Allegiance at some point in the day. The tweak softens the language from “require” to “shall have the opportunity,” but nonetheless means each classroom will recite the pledge each day, though no student is compelled to stand or participate.
“We pretty well have always done this, right?” Johnston County Board of Education Chairman Larry Strickland asked before a vote on the policy.
The school board adopted the unremarkable amendment during its last meeting, but used the moment to explore the limits of the First Amendment when wearing a school uniform. In light of East Carolina University marching band members taking a knee during the national anthem, Johnston school leaders wondered how they would respond to similar displays.
“I can see this happening at schools like it’s happened in the university setting,” school board member Keith Branch said. “If you’re a member of the marching band and you’re out there on the field, can the director not require the kids to play during the national anthem instead of just standing there not playing or taking a knee or whatever they’re doing?”
Johnston Superintendent Ross Renfrow, conferring with school system attorney Jimmy Lawrence, said it depends.
“When you’re in school garb, you’re representing the school, whether you’re in a band uniform or basketball uniform, or volleyball,” Ross Renfrow said. “I do know that in the situation in Greenville, those students continued to play even though they were kneeling. They were participating; they were just not participating standing up.”
As much as public protests, some school board members were concerned about indifference toward the pledge or a perceived lack of respect.
“I’ve noticed at a lot of our ball games that we don’t seem to have that respect,” school board member Donna White said. “I just wondered if it was something we were encouraging or are we not able to do that.”
In accordance with state law, local school board policy states that districts can offer “age-appropriate instruction on the meaning and historic origins of the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance.” But Renfrow noted that the schools cannot force students to recite the pledge.
“You cannot require a student to stand and participate, but, depending on what our definition of salute is, I think the majority of students stand and are respectful during the pledge and place their hands over their heart,” Renfrow said.
School system policy has help in encouraging respect for the flag and anthem, Renfrow said. He mentioned a moment at a football game where a principal offered his views to students choosing to sit during the national anthem. In another case, the superintendent said, a middle-schooler kneeling during the pledge was “corrected at home by his parents” once they were made aware of his actions.
“From a school system standpoint, I think that expectation is still there, but we have to temper that with what individuals rights are,” Renfrow said.