Florida mother: Son was forced to recite pledge, despite religious beliefs

HERNANDO COUNTY, Fla. - A Hernando County, Fla., mother says the actions of her son's fourth grade teacher at Explorer K-8 School in Spring Hill crossed the line during the Pledge of Allegiance.

The boy was forced to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance by his teacher, Anne Daigle-McDonald, back on September 11 and September 12.

"It was unnerving," said the mother, who asked not to be identified in order to protect her son.  "She went over and grabbed him and tried to force him to do it."

She says the 9-year-old returned from school and told his parents how McDonald grabbed his wrist and placed his hand over his heart.  The little boy says he protested and reminded his teacher he was a Jehovah's Witness.

Due to his religion, the boy is forbidden from worshipping objects.  On previous school days, the boy had not participated in the Pledge.  However, his parents do allow him to stand with his hands by his side out of respect.

According to the boy's mother, McDonald was made aware of the family's religious beliefs on the first day of school.

"I still spoke to her for five to eight minutes about my religion, our religion," she explained.

The boy's mother told ABC Action News her son was born in Spring Hill and is a natural born citizen.

"We still love our country.  We respect other people's rights to do that.  We respect the flag," she explained.

SCHOOL DISTRICT INVESTIGATION

Following the second incident on September 12, the boy's parents took their concerns to the principal.  An investigation was immediately launched and McDonald was placed on alternate assignment pending the outcome of the investigation.

On September 25, a pre-determination hearing was held at the Hernando County Public School Support Complex.

Present at the hearing were Heather Martin, executive director of business services, Kristina Garofano, assistant principal of Explorer K-8, Paul Meeker, general counsel, Sandra Armstrong, HCTA, Joann Hartge, HCTA, and McDonald.

McDonald attended and was flanked by a union representative.  She's worked for the district for nine years.

Prior to the meeting, McDonald was asked the following five questions and responded to them in writing as follows:

Q:  Did you grab [redacted] by the hand?

A: I showed him gently, taking his hand (wrist) and putting it on his heart.

Q: Did you force him to put his hand on his heart?

A: No.  I was explaining it to him how we say the Pledge.  I told him he did not have to say it.

Q: Were you aware [redacted] was a Jehovah's Witness?

A: Yes. The mom told me at Open House that they were Jehovah's Witnesses and don't celebrate holidays.

Q: Were you aware that saying the Pledge is against his religion?

A: No, but I told him he did not have to say it.

Q: Did you say, "If you don't respect the flag, you shouldn't live in this country?" (Or, something similar)

A: No. Not to him.  I said if you are not a citizen of the country probably don't pledge allegiance to the country.  I didn't say anything about the flag.

During the hearing, McDonald fielded dozens of questions, including:

Heather Martin:  Did you ask him to put his hand on his heart?

McDonald:  He seemed confused.

Martin:  Were you aware he was a Jehovah's Witness and couldn't say the Pledge of Allegiance?

McDonald:  No. His mother told me he didn't celebrate holidays or birthdays and I told her that was fine.

McDonald went on to describe the boy as "slow and confused" but "very sweet."

McDonald added that she requested a conference with the boy's parents but never heard back.  She admitted she spoke with the boy's mother on the first day of school and acknowledged she was aware of his religion and the restrictions.  However, she said she was not aware he could not participate in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Evidence collected against McDonald included written statements by seven of the boy's classmates.
Those letters were presented to her at the hearing.

They stated that McDonald announced to the class, "In my classroom, everyone will do the Pledge; no religion says you can't do the Pledge.  If you can't put your hand on your heart, then you need to move out of the country."
McDonald was also questioned about the letters.

Martin: Did you notice he wasn't participating in the Pledge before this day?

McDonald: He would stand. He said his mommy told him to stand.

Martin:  What was different on September 11 to cause you to insist that he participate in the Pledge?

McDonald: I didn't want him reading a book or doodling, the other children might imitate him. I didn't know it was against his religion.  I had no idea.

Martin: On the 12th, did you say something like, "You're an American and you're supposed to salute the flag?"

McDonald: Not to him but to the class after the Pledge.  The kids from breakfast were tardy.  They were late. 

I was telling them that when people apply to be citizens they make a pledge to the United States, not to the flag.  It wasn't directed at him but the whole class.   It was a social studies
issue.

Martin: Did you say, "If you don't want to say the Pledge you should move out of the country?"

McDonald:  Not to him. Not to anybody.  I was talking about terrorists, like 9-11.

They wouldn't say the Pledge so they should go back to their home country.

DISTRICT RULING

On October 7, McDonald was issued a formal letter of reprimand and direction.

School district leaders concluded that McDonald placed her hands on the boy to bring his hand to his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, forced the boy to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance against his religious beliefs, violated the boy's constitutional right to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance and made derogatory remarks about not Pledging Allegiance to the United States which embarrassed the boy.

McDonald was ordered suspended without pay for a period of five days.

The suspension was effective October 8-10 and October 14-15.  The formal letter of reprimand was added to her file, the misconduct was reported to the Department of Education and she is required to undergo diversity training.

The boy's mother told ABC Action News she is glad that McDonald was replaced by another teacher and that her son was not placed in a different classroom.

"It was like a fresh start for us," she concluded.

ABC Action News went to McDonald's home and spoke to her son.  We also left messages for McDonald on her phones but did not immediately hear back.

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