A Vineland, New Jersey teacher is taking a knee during the morning Pledge of Allegiance at a school named after a local war hero, and district leaders are scrambling to figure out what to do about it.
“Like any problematic issue, the district is exploring options to address this situation in fairness to all involved and with utmost concern for the students,” Joseph Rossi, executive director for Vineland Public Schools, told The Daily Journal.
The best option, several at the board meeting argued, is to make it stop.
School board members heard complaints from several folks at last week’s meeting about a teacher kneeling during the daily pledge, though Rossi contends the teacher “has not indicated anything ‘political’ about her views.”
“Teachers are paid to educate our students, they’re not paid to indoctrinate our students,” Vineland resident Ron Maccri told the board. “What this woman is doing would be bad in any school, but because it’s in the (Sgt.) Dominick Pilla School – who gave his life for our military – it’s reprehensible.”
The controversy comes just months after the school board renamed Lincoln Avenue Middle School to honor Pilla, an Army Ranger who died at the age of 19 during a mission in Somalia that inspired the movie “Black Hawk Down.”
Pilla was among 18 Americans killed in the 1993 mission. He was selected by the school board from among 12 nominations for a new school name. The school also reworked its “pillars of character” – the school’s foundation of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship – into “Pilla’s Pillars” to honor the fallen veteran and the military.
“The military itself falls in line with building character and leadership, and we’re trying to drive that home,” Principal Tammy Monahan told The Press of Atlantic City at the school’s renaming ceremony in April. “I see the students making that connection, and they’re eager to learn.”
Now they’re learning a different kind of lesson, and locals like U.S. Coast Guard veteran Randy London aren’t impressed.
“That type of behavior offends me,” London complained about the kneeling teacher. “I’m not saying anyone needs to agree with everything, but if that is the district’s policy, there should be no teacher … taking a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance.”
District policy 3233 states the Board of Education “recognizes and encourages the right of all citizens, including teaching staff members, to engage in political activity.”
It continues: “The Board prohibits the use of school premises and school time, however, for partisan political purposes.”
Lou Russo, president of the local teachers union, doesn’t seem to think the teacher’s defiance during the pledge is a problem, and he suggested students and others could learn a lot from the educator.
“Students do not have to stand, you can’t force students to stand, we cannot make students leave the room if they refuse,” Russo said. “It would be weird to think that the students in this situation have different or more rights than the employee.”
“My perspective is this is a wonderful learning experience for all of us, particularly for students; we have civil liberties, we have the Constitution and we have First Amendment rights,” he said. “I’m sure in some way, shape, or form, we can speak to her right to free exercise …”
“I hope we use it as a good learning experience whether it’s a political perspective, a social perspective or religious perspective, they are all protected,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us all to have a lesson on civics.”
School board vice president Tom Ulrich didn’t seem to think the teacher’s stunt is quite as “great” as Russo suggests. Ulrich noted that he was raised to salute the flag and support America, and said he thinks teachers should stick to the curriculum.
Teachers “should not be imparting their own personal views – political, religious, anything, upon a student,” he said. “If they don’t want to salute the flag and stand up and not pledge the Pledge of Allegiance, that’s one thing.
“But to think to impart their views on impressionable young children, is also, I’ll use your term, reprehensible,” Ulrich said. “It sets a bad tone.”