MANCHESTER

November 21, 2011

Law requires chance to pledge

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

MANCHESTER -- Coming from a proud family of veterans and having served in the National Guard himself, Barney Degen Jr. wants to raise his two children to be patriotic and civic-minded.

click image to enlarge

Kindergartners gather at James H. Bean Elementary School in Sidney. A new state law says schools must provide students with the opportunity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

When the Pledge of Allegiance came up as a topic on talk radio last week, Degen asked his 6-year-old daughter about it.

"I asked my daughter if she recites the Pledge of Allegiance at school," he said. "She said no. I asked if there was a flag in the classroom, and she said there was no flag. I was exceptionally displeased to hear both things."

Degen's daughter is in first grade at Manchester Elementary School, so he contacted Regional School Unit 38 Superintendent Rich Abramson.

Abramson asked a school worker to put up a flag in the classroom -- the new teacher had not done so yet -- and talked about the pledge this week with his administrative team.

"When the kids arrive, the day gets going and you lose sight of that," Abramson said. "I just think it was an oversight."

Degen said his daughter did learn the pledge in kindergarten.

RSU 38 -- which has schools in Manchester, Mount Vernon, Readfield and Wayne -- is not the only district that has overlooked the tradition.

But now, it's the law.

This spring, Maine legislators approved a law that requires schools to provide a chance for every student to say the Pledge of Allegiance during the course of the school day.

The legislation was introduced by Rep. Beth O'Conner, R-Berwick, and pushed by a veterans group in her district after they found out that the pledge was not said at Marshwood High School.

Even as the state law requires students have an opportunity to say the pledge, it also says that students cannot be required to do so, which adheres to federal court rulings.

Degen said the exception for individual students is fine with him, but he's glad the pledge opportunity is now mandated for Maine schools.

"Quite honestly, I didn't think there should have to be a law," he said.

Abramson said some of his principals said their schools have never held a formal pledge, and it has not come up in his 11 years with the school district.

The district's schools handle it in different ways -- perhaps during morning announcements at the elementary schools, during advisee time at the middle school and over the intercom between classes at the high school.

The school board's policy committee will consider adopting a formal policy, and instruction on how to include the Pledge opportunity in the school day may be incorporated into new teacher orientation, Abramson said.

The law allows schools wide latitude.

"We do have some administrators that just leave it up to their teachers to do the Pledge of Allegiance in their classroom. Some do it over the announcements," said Pat Hopkins, superintendent of Gardiner-based Regional School Unit 11. "But they definitely all do the Pledge of Allegiance."

RSU 11 has had a policy in place at least since 2007 to protect students who don't want to say the pledge for religious or other reasons.

"They may remain seated if they wish, or if they wish to stand and just not say anything, that is up to the child," Hopkins said.

Gary Smith, superintendent of Regional School Unit 18 in Oakland, said the pledge has been said in all schools at least since the district consolidated two years ago, and he believes the tradition was in place in the schools before that as well.

"A change of practice like that certainly would have gotten a lot of attention," he said.

The pledge is worthwhile and important to many Americans, Smith said.

"It's something that many of us have done, and why would you change that?" he said.

Regional School Unit 2 Superintendent Virgel Hammonds said his district -- which serves Dresden, Famingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond -- does not have a policy on the pledge, but students at all schools say it daily.

"In my mind, it's something that we should be doing," he said. "We live in the United States -- it's worth us acknowledging where we are and participating in that civic practice. I know there's some controversy with that, and there's a few words that some people question, but we haven't had any problems with it."

Susan McMillan -- 621-5645

smcmillan@mainetoday.com

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

"A school administrative unit shall allow every student enrolled in the school administrative unit the opportunity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at some point during a school day in which students are required to attend. A school administrative unit may not require a student to recite the Pledge of Allegiance."

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