A Connecticut school board member has an interesting idea for educating students about the purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance and the sacrifices that come with the freedoms all Americans enjoy.
Instead of closing schools for Veteran’s Day and Martin Luther King Day, the Waterbury school board could create a whole day of lessons on American history centered on the respective holidays, something board member Thomas Van Stone Sr. said could help foster understanding between students with different backgrounds.
But his suggestion isn’t sitting well with black folks in the Waterbury community, who are now labeling Van Stone as a racist and demanding his resignation, the Waterbury Observer reports.
The Waterbury school district has been embroiled in a controversy about the Pledge of Allegiance since last October, when a teacher at Waterbury Arts Magnet School thanked students who choose to stand for the daily ritual.
Italian language teacher Ralph Belvedere also brought in another teacher to talk to several black students mimicking NFL player Colin Kapernick’s national anthem protests by remaining seated and silent during the pledge.
Belvedere’s praise for students who respect America and veterans triggered and offended a 14-year-old sophomore whose chose not to stand. The girl’s mother, Gina Humber, is a national speaker about race, education and “diversity,” and the two sued the teacher and school district alleging Belvedere’s conduct violated the teen’s First Amendment rights.
In February, the Waterbury Board of Education settled the federal lawsuit by agreeing to pay the student’s legal fees and publicly acknowledge that no students at the school are required to stand for or recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Shortly after the settlement, Van Stone addressed a Board of Education meeting by quoting from the Black National Anthem, and opining that it “takes two minutes to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance.”
He discussed his family’s military service and suggested students “no longer have the day off for Veterans Day and no longer take a day off for Dr. Martin Luther King Day.”
Instead, he said, students could participate in an event “that teaches them everything about our American history,” the Observer reports.
“If they choose to come to school, then the events of the day will only be to honor what those days bring to us,” suggested Van Stone, who is reportedly a member of the local NAACP.
“If we use Veteran’s Day as an example, we would not have it as a day off,” he said, according to WTNH. “I’d like to have it as a day on. We would bring in either veterans or family members that would tell the stories of how veterans felt.”
Van Stone stressed the day wouldn’t be a punitive measure for students who choose not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
“I think it would just open eyes and get people to understand each person’s opinions on things,” he said.
Van Stone told WTNH “Right now, our country seems to be settling into one corner or another and I think we need to come out of those corners and have a good, constructive dialogue.”
His words have since ignited a controversy that’s raged for weeks.
A coalition of local black leaders and religious figures issued a joint statement and held a press conference at Grace Baptist Church on March 2 to denounce his remarks and allege Van Stone “exhibited a large degree of racial insensitivity and complete disregard for students’ rights protected under the Constitution.”
Black leaders took turns at the podium during the press conference to blast Van Stone as a racist and demand he resign from the board.
“How dare anyone take something as sacred as the Black National Anthem and juxtapose that to make an argument as to why black folks are not understanding our history,” Pastor Rodney Wade said. “We’re clear about our history. We know we came here on slave ships. We understand Jim Crow and all the things this country has but us through. We stand here today to say we will not tolerate it or put up with this any longer.”
Ginnie-Ray Clay, president of the Greater Waterbury NAACP, complained “the entire Board of Education sat silent and failed to condemn Commissioner Van Stone as he disrespected an entire population of students and their families.”
Clay said blacks in the community “are extremely offended that Commissioner Van Stone consciously made the decision to desecrate the Black National Anthem by using certain versus to make clear his racially biased, ridiculous, offensive and unconstitutional proposal to eliminate the Dr. Martin Luther King federal holiday.”
Students at the protest told WFSB the proposal to learn more about black history and sacrifices of veterans as an “extreme ideology” and “racially insensitive.”
“Personally, as a student, I feel him saying this endangers me as a student because I think that he doesn’t care about my future, and if he’s biased about this, he could be biased about a decision that affects my entire life,” student Amari Brantley told the news site.
Brantley also told WTNH he stands for the pledge, while other black students who do not made it clear Van Stone’s proposal could do some good.
“Personally, I stand up because I respect all veterans, but I choose not to recite (the pledge) because I still would like to take part in the peaceful protest Kapernick stands for and all African Americans stand for,” Brantley said.
One of Brantley’s classmates, another black male, told the news site he sits it out “because I never learned the real reason to stand for the pledge.
“All they did was tell us to stand,” he said.