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The aftermath: School lessons in free expression send mixed messages

By staff,
The Associated Press


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(Editor's note: The Del Paso Heights Elementary school board voted on July 9 to uphold the firing of teacher Kory Grant Clift, who burned part of the U.S. flag last September in a classroom.)

American schools are becoming quiet battlegrounds for free expression in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In Sacramento, Calif., yesterday, parents called for the firing of a teacher who burned an American flag in front of his sixth-graders a week after the suicide hijackings.

"He shouldn't even be working in the school district if he's going to be thinking like that," parent Myeshia Dunson said. "That scares the kids. It's not good."

Second-year teacher Kory Grant Clift, 25, described by some parents as an excellent teacher who showed poor judgment, has apologized for the Sept. 18 incident, in which he partially burned the flag in front of 30 students in class and referred to the nation as the "United Snakes" in what he called an example of "revolutionary teaching."

Clift allegedly set fire to a corner of the flag and said, "I can't burn it all, because that's illegal." He also told his students, "Babylon is burning," according to officials at Del Paso Heights Elementary School District.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that flag burning is a constitutionally protected exercise of free speech.

Carl Mack, the district's superintendent, said yesterday that he has notified Clift that he had come to a decision about his career status that will take effect in 30 days, and that Clift can appeal to the school board. The school district and its attorneys declined further comment, citing "confidentiality." The California Teachers Association provided Clift with an attorney, Carolyn Langenkamp, who also declined comment.

This is the second time this year Clift has been on administrative leave with pay. Last spring, he was placed on leave for placing a child in a closet for disciplinary reasons, district officials said.

Clift did not return messages left at his home yesterday. But in a statement released by a friend, he said that he was sorry about the negative attention the flag-burning had brought to his school district and that he wants to continue teaching.

Meanwhile, in nearby Rocklin, Calif., a conservative public interest law firm said yesterday it would defend any school district that is challenged for displaying the message "God Bless America."

The offer from the Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice was sparked by a legal debate over the message being posted outside Breen Elementary School after the attacks.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent the school district a letter last week, saying the sign violates the constitutional requirement of separation between church and state. The center's offer is one of several the district has received since then, Superintendent Kevin Brown said.

Brown said the district, near Sacramento, has sent the ACLU a letter disagreeing with the group's view and is awaiting a response.

ACLU spokeswoman Stella Richardson said yesterday the group had no plans to sue.

In Cleveland, Ohio, however, a student who did sue after being suspended for displaying patriotic posters and war slogans on his school locker won his day in court yesterday.

A federal judge ruled that Aaron Petitt, 16, must be allowed back in class.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Solomon Oliver stopped short of allowing Petitt, of suburban Fairview Park, to display the posters. The judge said a later hearing was necessary to decide that issue and whether Petitt must serve the remaining seven days of his suspension.

The school's attorney, James Thomas, said he was satisfied that the judge hadn't ruled that the teen's free-speech rights were violated.

Petitt's lawsuit said the suspension, which began Oct. 5, violated his rights to free speech and patriotism.

The teen, whose sister was injured in the attack on the World Trade Center while emerging from a subway, said the school was worried that students of Middle Eastern descent might be offended by his posters.

The posters showed bombers dropping their payloads with messages including "Good morning, Afghan!" and "May God have mercy, because we will not."

Petitt said the only response he received from Middle Eastern students were compliments. He said the posters had been displayed for weeks without comment from administrators until he was informed last week that they would be removed and he would be suspended.

"I was very surprised," he added. "I was just showing how I felt, and I thought I could do that."

Meanwhile, if all goes as planned, many of the nation's 52 million students will simultaneously recite the Pledge of Allegiance on Oct. 12

Education Secretary Rod Paige yesterday urged all 107,000 public and private elementary and secondary schools to take part in a campaign organized by Celebration U.S.A., a Villa Park, Calif.-based nonprofit group that distributes educational materials to help students learn about American democracy and patriotism.

In a letter sent to principals, Paige noted that since the terrorist attacks, Americans have supported the victims, their families, rescue workers and the military.

"Today I ask students, teachers, parents and other proud Americans across the country to join me in showing our patriotism by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at a single time and with a unified voice," Paige wrote. "We can send a loud and powerful message that will be heard around the world: America is 'one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.'"

The pledge will be recited at 2 p.m. EDT on Oct. 12, and at the corresponding times in the other U.S. time zones. Paige will participate from a Washington-area school. His spokeswoman, Lindsey Kozberg, stressed that taking part in the synchronized pledge recital is voluntary.


Student, school district settle lawsuit over war posters
Cleveland-area high schooler Aaron Petitt, suspended for displaying posters of planes bombing Afghanistan, accepts $24,000, mostly legal fees.  11.30.01


School rejects ACLU complaint over 'God Bless America' sign
Civil liberties group says message violates church-state separation, but California school districtís attorney says words are patriotic, not religious.  10.08.01

Terrorism sparks debates on school prayer
ĎKids can pray; we're just really careful about organized prayer in school,í an Idaho principal notes.  10.13.01

Teen barred from forming anarchy club, wearing anti-war T-shirt
West Virginia circuit judge says free speech is 'sacred' but such rights are 'tempered by the limitations that they ... not disrupt the educational process.'  11.02.01

The Flag Desecration Amendment (2001)
Information on the debate over flag desecration, political expression and the First Amendment.  03.21.01

Lawmakers bless 'God Bless America' displays
House passes nonbinding resolution urging public schools to post message as a show of patriotism.  10.17.01

Surge of patriotism in schools leads to questions about right to dissent
Albuquerque, N.M., teacher says her research has found that even before Sept. 11, many students didnít feel safe expressing their opinions at school.  10.18.01

Pledging to instill patriotism
Lawmakers, school officials want to bring back pledge of allegiance, national anthem.  10.26.01