Gabriella Ferrell – Allen P. Wilkinson Student Activist Award

altFor our first three years of high school, we had often discussed how the Pledge of Allegiance made us uncomfortable. We had joked and made vague plans for how, when we were seniors, we would change how the pledge was addressed in our school. At South Portland High School, the senior class president reads the pledge over the intercom each morning, preceded by the invitation, “Will you all please rise and join me for the Pledge of Allegiance?”

Lily was class president all four years, and when the end of junior year approached, with the looming responsibility of leading the pledge, our plans needed to become more concrete. We thoroughly researched the history of the pledge. We studied federal, state and local laws and policies surrounding its recitation in schools. We read about cases in other schools when students fought against the pledge in one way or another.
Armed with the information that Maine state law says schools must allow students the “opportunity” to recite the pledge once during each school day, the three of us marched into the office on Lily’s first day as acting senior president with a plan. Lily stated clearly over the intercom, “You may now stand and recite the pledge if you wish to,” followed by 15 seconds (we had previously timed it) of silence.

She then said, “The poem of the day is the Pledge to the Earth.” (An announcements tradition is having a poem, joke or song of the day.) Lily then recited “I pledge allegiance to the Earth, and all the life which it supports, one planet, in our care, irreplaceable, with sustenance and respect for all.”

The reactions from students and staff to our “unauthorized student action” — as it was deemed by our principal in an email memo he sent to staff about the incident — were our first introduction to the strong and varying opinions virtually everybody has about the pledge.

During our subsequent meeting with our principal, we explained that this wasn’t a one-time stunt and that we wanted to make a real change in the high school. We told him that we and other students had been pressured and made to feel uncomfortable by staff members during the pledge and in order to help those students, the procedure needed to change.

There are many reasons someone may not want to stand for or recite the pledge such as religious restrictions, moral conflicts or political ideals. When the words of the pledge are broken down, it’s a solemn promise of unconditional loyalty and support to the United States and its government. It’s unethical and decidedly contrary to the values of free speech and beliefs to force anyone, let alone teenagers and children, to make that promise.

Our principal understood where we were coming from and supported us, but he couldn’t make a decision to change the procedure himself. We were given a place on the agenda for the next meeting of the faculty leadership team.

In the few weeks we had to prepare for our presentation, rumors began circulating through the school and community about us and our intentions. Not only students, but faculty members were gossiping about us. We were told by one teacher that another had said to him, “Those girls just don’t understand, I’d like to show them pictures of my dead friends from the war, maybe then they’d get it.”

We also had teachers and students who were our allies. Our civil rights team adviser helped us craft our presentation and prepare for the meeting. Our proposal was to change the pledge procedure to the way Lily had done it on her first morning. Though we had a well-researched and argued presentation, the committee shot it down unanimously. We were upset and slightly discouraged.

We get an ultimatum

School work picked up and we let the issue fall by the wayside for a few months. Lily led the school in the pledge each morning just like it had always been done. Until one morning, without asking permission, she again added “if you’d like to” at the end of her invitation to stand and join her in the pledge. And she continued to do so, and for a few weeks most people didn’t say anything, save for a couple of our classmates who noticed and complimented Lily on the addition.

Then somehow, a parent caught wind of the subtle change and took to Facebook to air his not-so-subtle objections to it, and still not-so-subtly blame low-income immigrants for it. His post blew up with comments from other parents and community members who were equally displeased with the apparently frightful notion of alerting students to their freedom of choice.

Our principal got calls and emails, some of which were not phrased so politely or eloquently, and Lily was told she could no longer add the disclaimer. No discussion, no ifs, ands or buts. Either she dropped the line or someone else could lead the pledge.
Now we were mad. We didn’t understand why random community members could stop us from telling students about their freedom of speech and choice, and why those people had a bigger say in how our school was run than students who actually attend our school. Plus, the people who were upset about the “four little words” wanted students to be forced to stand and recite the pledge, which is against the law in Maine.

This is when we called the Portland Press Herald, and our interview with Kelley Bouchard ran on the front page. The response was massive. The story was picked up by every local paper, news stations showed up at school to interview us and the story went national on Yahoo and the Washington Post. We were interviewed by radio show hosts as far away as Chicago.

Each time the story ran brought responses, sometimes in the thousands. Many of the comments on the online articles were ugly. Sexist, racist, ageist and anti-immigrant sentiments abounded. Foul language, logical fallacies, threats and suggestions that we relocate our ungrateful selves to Afghanistan were aplenty.

There was also support and accolades from strangers both local and national. Some of the comments were so ridiculous that they made us laugh, but even with the incorrect grammar and over-the-top language, a personal attack is still a personal attack and some were pretty hurtful.

One specifically upsetting outcome was a Twitter page (@saythepledge) that was created by an unknown student in our school devoted to tearing us down and aggressively promoting the pledge.

Digging in our heels

The massive amount of attention and backlash only motivated us to make the change we believed was needed. We asked to present to the leadership team again. Our principal told us that we probably wouldn’t get anywhere with the “if you’d like to” idea because the tensions were still high from our secondary “unauthorized student action.”

So we wrote a procedure that stated the invitation would be “I now invite you to rise and join me for the Pledge of Allegiance” which also stated clearly that no teacher may compel a student to participate in any way, but that everyone is expected to remain quiet while the pledge is read, and that the right to choose without coercion will be explained at the start of each school year to incoming first-year students.

We came to our second presentation armed with a petition signed by almost 200 current students and alumni supporting the change, as well as anonymous anecdotes from students who had been pressured by teachers to participate in the pledge and how uncomfortable they felt.

We explained that by using the word “invite,” it was clear that one can either accept or decline the offer to join in the pledge, complying with the law by allowing the opportunity but not pressuring anybody to do anything they don’t want to do. The team voted in favor of our new proposal.

We are confident that the procedure will be followed in the years to come and hopeful that this change and the communitywide discussion that preceded it will make for a more open and comfortable environment for students and faculty at South Portland High School.

Lily SanGiovanni: I am 18 and have grown up in South Portland. I am the daughter of Robert and Kimberly SanGiovanni. Throughout high school I have participated in my school’s award-winning jazz ensemble, marching band and wind ensemble. I played on the varsity lacrosse team as a goalie. I was a member of student government, Civil Rights Team, my school’s service group Interact, Spanish Club, Amnesty International and served as student president for the class of 2015 all four years.

I will be heading to Wesleyan University this fall to play lacrosse and plan on majoring in neuroscience. I have always been a passionate, curious person who questions the questionable. Though successfully changing the pledge policy was a reward in itself, I am psyched and extremely honored to receive this award.

Morrigan Turner: I am 18 and grew up in South Portland with my parents, Colleen Jones-Turner and Peter Turner. I am going to Vassar College and plan on majoring in environmental studies to save the planet. At South Portland High School I took part in the Student Senate, Civil Rights Team, Poetry Club, Math Team, Musical, Drama Club and Seeds of Peace. I was also president of the Amnesty International chapter, a student representative to the School Board and vice president of the class of 2015. Changing the pledge procedure taught me so much, and I appreciate the recognition of the work we all did.

Gaby Ferrell: I’m 18 and I’m the daughter of Courtney and Tim Ferrell. Throughout high school I was a member of the Student Senate, Civil Rights Team, Blunt Youth Radio and did tech for the Drama Club and musical. I was also a student representative on the School Board and the building committee for our recently renovated high school. I’ll be starting at Barnard College of Columbia University to study sociology and economics.

Freedom From Religion Foundation