6th grader's misdemeanor charge sparks outrage

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On Feb. 4, a sixth-grader at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland, Florida was arrested following a heated confrontation with a substitute teacher over the student’s refusal to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. As of last Monday, the student is facing misdemeanor charges for disrupting a school facility and resisting an officer without violence, according to The Washington Post.

It’s not difficult to see why this arrest became so controversial: the 11-year-old African American student refused to stand for the pledge because he claimed the flag was racist against black people. When the substitute teacher pressed him to stand for the pledge — something that is not mandated by school policy — the student first lashed out against the teacher and continued to shout and make threats when the administrative dean and school resource officer arrived at the classroom, accusing them, as well as the school, of being racist.

Many see this as another prime example of racial discrimination, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida issuing a harsh rebuke against the school’s behavior and management of the situation, branding it as a denial of the right to free speech and an instance of the over-policing of black students. But this raises an important question: was this arrest racially motivated?

Unfortunately, differing testimonies make it impossible to know for certain what happened that day. The student has one account, the school had another, and reconciling the two is what the court system is for. However, if we consider the facts as they are presented to be at least somewhat accurate, then this was not solely an act of discrimination against a black student, as the school does not require everyone to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and the student was being disruptive and uncooperative with the administration.

When students enter a school, they do not lose their First Amendment right to free speech. In this specific situation, the student’s First Amendment Right was not denied to him, as the school does not have a policy that forces everyone to stand for the Pledge (unlike in states like Texas). Rather, the problem here was one of miscommunication, as the substitute teacher was not made aware of such a policy, an oversight that the school is responsible for. To equate that miscommunication with intentionally denying a student their right to free speech is an exaggeration.

In terms of the student’s behavior, it was clearly inappropriate for a school setting. While a student’s constitutional rights are protected when they enter a school, students do sacrifice some freedoms in exchange for an education. After all, it would be wrong to say that students should be allowed to do and say whatever they wish within a classroom, as anarchy is not conducive to learning. For a school to function properly, there must be some sense of order, and it is expected that students will listen to faculty instructions and adhere to rules of conduct. If the student had responded calmly to the substitute and the school officials, then this whole fiasco might never have happened. Instead, the student chose to disrupt class and escalate the situation, which of course led to disciplinary action. Arresting the student and issuing formal charges may seem severe, but considering that there were threats leveled against both the dean and a resource officer associated with the local police, it is not unreasonable. All students, regardless of race, should be held to this same standard, and if a white student behaving the same way were treated more leniently, then that would be adequate proof of racism.

While neither party is blameless, the greater transgression is still on the part of the student, as his overreaction is what ultimately catalyzed this chain of events. Also notice that, in considering these two aspects of the situation, race did not come up. That’s not to say that race is irrelevant; it could still be possible that this was racially motivated and that school officials harbor an implicit bias towards black students. But flinging the accusation of racism is a stretch given that there were relevant, non-racial reasons for the disciplinary actions taken.

By no means am I belittling the problem of racism or racial discrimination. There should be no doubt that institutional racism continues to thrive in the U.S., spurred on by a blatantly racist administration and its policies. Instead, we should be more mindful about how and when we apply the term “racism” or “racist,” as these labels should not be taken lightly. Race is not always the motivating factor. Sometimes, people act inappropriately, and action needs to be taken. Removing a disruptive student from a classroom is not an act of racism or an attempt to silence minority voices: it is simply a school trying to maintain order and ensure that the primary goal of education can continue. To frame the incident entirely through the rhetoric of discrimination is to inflate the occurrence beyond reason.

When a race-related controversy arises, we should dissect the situation and critically evaluate each part rather than jumping straight to conclusions that do not necessarily align with facts. Designating an act as an example of racism or calling someone a racist should only come as a result of careful deliberation rather than gut instinct.