VINELAND — As Manuel “Manny” Martinez watched the presidential debates and followed the election process, he became increasingly unhappy with what he was seeing happen in America.
At just 13, the Thomas J. Wallace Middle School seventh-grader was too young to vote, but after talking with friends at lunch, he wanted a way to express how he was feeling.
So he decided to change something most students take for granted. He decided to stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance each morning in school.
First, though, he asked his mom, Loretta Evans, if he could.
“We talked about it, and I wanted to make sure he understood what he was doing and was taking it seriously,” Evans said. “I said, ‘This is a big deal.’”
Manny explained how to him the flag is a symbol of the power and strength of America.
“The first 13 colonies made a flag,” he said. “When we win battles, we put up a flag. The first astronaut on the moon put down a flag.”
But on television Manny had watched President-elect Donald Trump say disparaging things about women and make fun of people with disabilities.
“We have students with disabilities in our school, and we help them,” he said.
So a few weeks ago he went to school and didn’t stand up for the pledge. When the teacher asked why and he told her, she said he would need a note from his mother.
Evans said she wrote the note supporting her son, but she also said he was not trying to cause trouble.
“This was just his personal belief,” she said. “We didn’t want them to make it a big issue.”
State law requires students to say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. But under federal case law, students who refuse to stand to make a political statement or because of religious beliefs are exercising their right of free expression.
But as Manny remained quietly seated in the mornings, others did not. Manny said some teachers and staff started approaching him, telling him he was wrong and disrespectful or making other disparaging remarks. He said one teacher lectured him on what a great president Trump was going to be.
Evans said she noticed Manny was coming home unhappy, and when he told her why she contacted school officials.
“If they had done a discussion in class, that would be been OK,” she said. “But people were just telling him he was wrong. I had told him there might be some negative feedback, but it’s from the teachers, and some are not even his teachers, which means they are talking about him.”
School Superintendent Mary Gruccio said when she learned of the situation she had Assistant Superintendent John Frangipani immediately contact Evans and the principal.
“Our policy allows any student to not participate in the flag salute or stand as long as he/she remains respectful to others,” she said in an email. “Our policy was shared with staff when this came about.”
Manny said the comments have stopped this week and everyone is more accepting. Evans said she has a meeting with the school principal on Friday.
Vineland Education Association President Louis Russo said he was not aware of the incident at the school, but the situation does come up occasionally and often teachers are worried about being accused of insubordination if they don’t require students to participate.
“As a Social Studies teacher with over 20 years of experience, I know that our culture and schools in general do a good job of trying to instill patriotism, civics and good citizenship, but often we fail to understand that part of good citizenship is the protection of peaceful free speech and dissent,” Russo said in an email.
Jeanne LoCicero, deputy director of the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union, said her group has had a handful of complaints about students being disciplined for not saying the pledge, but typically once the ACLU reaches out to the school, the matter is resolved and the student’s record is cleared.
Manny said maybe one day he will again be proud to say the pledge. But for now, he will remain seated.