Students in Teton County schools now have the opportunity to say the Pledge of Allegiance or any other “patriotic exercise” at the beginning of every school day.
“On Sept. 11, of all days, we should be doing that,” Teton County School District No. 1 Trustee Bill Scarlett said Tuesday. “I think civics education is very important, and I think the Pledge of Allegiance recognizes a lot of what our country is. There’s no requirement in the policy that students participate in it, so we aren’t requiring that.”
Staff at Jackson Hole High School said they were told the increase in patriotism this school year is due to board policy. Teton County School District No. 1’s policy on the subject was adopted Nov. 8, 1977, with revisions in 2003 and, most recently, March 21.
The policy states that “administrators and teachers shall have a patriotic exercise at the beginning of each school day, assemblies, athletic contests and other school activities. No one shall be required to salute the flag, recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the National Anthem if it is against his/her beliefs. The words and the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem may be taught to all students.”
The revisions in the spring included changing “may” to “shall” in the first sentence.
The school board has been going through all policies, section by section, over the past year. Committees got together on each policy and recommended changes to make them more consistent with other policies. Policies up for change are given a first and second reading with time for public comment before being voted on and approved, often in a batch with other policies.
“This was part of our overall review and updating of our district policies,” said Charlotte Reynolds, information coordinator.
Morning announcements happen differently at each school. District elementary schools have agreed that the pledge will be read over the loudspeaker during Monday morning announcements and that teachers will lead their own pledges Tuesday through Friday in the classrooms.
The change from last year, when the pledge was usually said once a week in most schools, was rolled out this week in a slightly confusing manner for staff.
Several Jackson Hole Middle School staffers said they were told patriotic exercises needed to occur every morning due to legislative action this past session.
But no such bill passed in the Wyoming Legislature this year. A similar bill, House Bill 133, said that if donor money was provided, schools could put up plaques that say “In God We Trust” at the entrance. The bill was not heard by the Senate.
Pushing for patriotism
There have been pushes at a state level for more patriotism in schools — like flags in every classroom and the pledge being recited every day. Wyoming is one of a few of states where there is not an explicit requirement to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, but anything related to the pledge tends to draw attention.
In 2014 a University of Wyoming student veteran gained national media attention after he appeared on Fox News and said he was barred from reciting the pledge because it might offend foreign students. The Casper Star-Tribune reported that the University of Wyoming said the allegations were untrue.
District staff who didn’t want to be named for fear of retribution said they were confused as to why the patriotism is being added now — if the policy change became official in March — and why they were being told two different things. Teachers are expected to follow board policy, but some staff say that students’ ability to opt out isn’t being clearly communicated and that they’re bothered that it feels forced and mandatory.
A 1943 Supreme Court decision, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, says students can’t be required to stand or say the pledge. An American Civil Liberties Union guidebook for Wyoming students states that “your right to free speech includes the right to be free from being forced to speak. You cannot be disciplined for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance or saluting the flag. … No one can ask you to get your parents’ permission not to salute the flag, and no one should ask you to leave the room if you choose not to. To be considerate of fellow students and not cause a disruption, though, be prepared to keep quiet if others do.”
Sabrina King, the policy director for Wyoming’s ACLU chapter, was curious about teachers’ role in the new policy and the directive “shall.”
“It surprises me that the requirement is that there must be some sort of patriotic showing by teachers,” King said. “Teachers also don’t give up their rights in the classroom. So I think there would be an open question if a teacher either had a set of beliefs or for other reasons did not want to follow that policy.”
But since the policy says “no one” is required to do things like salute the flag, recite the pledge or sing the national anthem, she said teachers are likely covered.
“Our right to free speech follows us into our workplaces and our classrooms and can’t be qualified by a school district policy,” King said. “So provided that there is leeway to teachers and students, the district can pass that policy.”
The pledge is a familiar part of some Teton County school events, like the board meetings that happen every month. It sometimes is recited at basketball games, and the national anthem is sung before football games. The pledge did not occur at the Jackson Hole High School’s graduation this spring, which ruffled some feathers. After the pledge was said in Spanish once at Jackson Elementary School and a parent complained, staff were told they should say the pledge in English.
It’s unclear what “patriotic exercises” every day could include, and the policy doesn’t list acceptable or unacceptable examples.
A ‘bulwark’ of our way
But Jackson Hole High School history teacher Jim Rooks said patriotism is a “bulwark of a highly functioning democratic republic.”
“It is up to any democratic society to promote patriotism of that same said nation,” Rooks said. “So if we talk about supporting our democracy, a part of that is the promotion of patriotic duties in association with the role of the citizens within a free democracy. That’s pure civics, that’s right out of a textbook. Some people think of patriotism as a charged and loaded word, but the founders view patriotism as a form of obligation to your community and to your country.”
Rooks said the high school’s social studies department is looking forward to teachable patriotic exercises every day that are “meaningful and authentic” and eventually extend beyond merely the pledge. That could include reading excerpts of powerful speeches throughout American history, like those of Theodore Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and George Washington, as well as using days like Sept. 11, Veterans Day and Memorial Day as teachable moments.
“There are a lot of different ways to promote patriotic representation and civic responsibility, and the pledge is just one of them,” he said. “We love that the pledge is being said on a regular basis, but we’d also like to do something so it doesn’t just become the voice on the loudspeaker.”