School Board delays decision on Pledge of Allegiance

Future school board meetings will be online instead of in person.

The South Whidbey School Board did not come to a decision this week about whether to reinstate the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of regular meetings.

This did not sit well with a group of sign-and-flag-waving residents who met outside one of the schools to listen to the meeting and recite the patriotic pledge together. At least one person in the crowd hoped that a compromise will be enacted in the future.

The board’s lengthy discussion of the topic during the Sept. 8 workshop was prompted by a spontaneous recitation of the pledge by audience members during the previous board meeting Aug. 25.

Board Chairperson Brook Willeford led off the discussion with a brief history of the pledge, which was written by Francis Bellamy in 1892. According to an article from Smithsonian Magazine, Bellamy believed the pledge would protect traditional American values from, as Bellamy termed them, “every alien immigrant of inferior race.”

The same article stated that Congress added “under God” in 1954 to counter ‘godless communism.”

Board member Damian Greene acknowledged the pledge’s questionable history but encouraged board members to also consider the more positive meanings the pledge has taken on since its creation.

“It has transformed over the years to where I think it is a significant part of the country, and I don’t want to have the kids, or students, be subjected to anything that we’re not subjected to,” he said.

Washington state law requires students be given the opportunity to recite the pledge in school every day, though students may choose not to participate, as per a 1943 court case, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette.

Greene said that since anyone may choose to opt out of the pledge, it is better that the board be given the opportunity to say it for those who wish to.

Board member Marnie Jackson said she appreciated the nuanced discussion of the topic.

“I too am troubled with its racist roots,” she said of the pledge, later adding, “I also share the philosophy that there are really noble aspirations that are named in the pledge, and that we should be striving for a union in which ‘liberty and justice for all’ are centered and called to our attention as frequently as possible.”

The board also discussed whether the audience’s recitation on Aug. 25, which interrupted a board discussion about meeting arrangements, was an appropriate catalyst for this discussion.

Superintendent Josephine Moccia said no one has expressed concerns about the pledge not being said since it was first taken off the board’s agenda a decade ago. The pledge was removed unilaterally by then-board chair Steve Scoles, not by a vote of the board at the time. The board chair is responsible for setting meeting agendas.

“It’s kind of been weaponized against this board,” she said, adding that the pledge itself does not concern her so much as the manner in which the topic came to the board’s attention.

Willeford expressed a similar sentiment.

“I really have not appreciated the use of the pledge as a disruptive tool in our in-person meetings. I felt that that was disrespectful, not only to the board but also to the pledge,” he said.

The board took no action but ultimately decided to form a committee to examine the issue at a later date.

This meeting was held online only, and board meetings will continue to be online only for the foreseeable future. Willeford said the decision to resume the virtual format was influenced by three factors.

“South Whidbey School Board’s shift to online-only meetings is a direct result of elevated cases of COVID-19 in the community in concert with high in-person attendance and the inability or unwillingness of members of the public to obey masking mandates from the Governor’s office and the Washington State Department of Health,” he said in an email.

In the video of the previous board meeting on Aug. 25, one public commenter can be seen removing her mask, and Jackson addresses at least one off-screen attendee to ask him or her to comply with the mask policy.

“Until we believe that we can provide a safe environment for members of the public, board members, staff members, students — and family members of all of the above — wishing to attend in-person meetings, we will remain virtual,” Willeford said, adding that in-person meetings are not required during the pandemic so long as public meetings are accessible by virtual means.

A knot of Whidbey residents unhappy with the decision gathered outside South Whidbey Elementary School to listen to the board meeting and recite the Pledge of Allegiance together, sporting American flags and signs denouncing the board’s decision.

Several of those gathered said they felt the move back to virtual meetings was an attempt to silence the voices of community members who disagreed with the board.

“Right now, my primary concern is just the infringement on our right to assemble, and the infringement on our right to free speech, because now we’re constrained by Zoom only, versus Zoom plus in-person,” said Larry Christensen, a community member who attended the gathering.

Wayne Flaaten, the organizer of the gathering, said compromise was the key to making South Whidbey residents feel heard.

“It takes listening to one another,” added Darrell Wenzek. “That’s where we feel kind of ignored, because we have some strong convictions, and they’re just saying, ‘We don’t even want to hear them. We’re just going to do what we want to do.’”

Flaaten, who identified himself as the initiator of the impromptu pledge in the previous meeting, said one example of an acceptable compromise would be to say the Pledge of Allegiance alongside the Land Acknowledgement read by the board at the beginning of each meeting.

“That is a large issue, that we have a land acknowledgement for some other sovereign nation that holds ground inside of our nation, but yet we’re not going to recognize our own nation and pledge to it,” Christensen said.

Flaaten acknowledged that the pledge has not been said in South Whidbey School Board meetings for 10 years, but he explained residents are only just now pushing for its reinstatement because they weren’t aware of its absence until recent discussions about the controversial Black Lives Matter banner drew residents to board meetings in greater numbers.

Photos by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times
Wayne Flaaten, standing, gathers with other community members to listen to a South Whidbey School District board meeting.

Photos by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times Wayne Flaaten, standing, gathers with other community members to listen to a South Whidbey School District board meeting.