Pasco family sues school over pledge protest

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The family of a first-grader who was told to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance is suing Pasco County Schools.  The lawsuit was filed last week, claiming the teacher violated the boy's constitutional rights.    

It wasn't pre-planned or some orchestrated stunt.  But on a Monday morning in September, Eugenia McDowell's son made a statement at Wiregrass Elementary School.

"He actually demonstrated what he did, he took a knee and he put his hand over his heart," she said.

She found out about the incident through a text from his first grade teacher saying in part, "I told him we are learning what it means to be a good citizen, we're learning about respecting the United States of America and our country's symbols and showing loyalty and patriotism, and that we stand for the Pledge of Allegiance."

But according to McDowell, the teacher's reaction took away her son's right to free speech.

"Immediately caused him to think again about ever expressing himself in a way that would be different then the way other people are expressing themselves," said McDowell.

Pasco County Schools' code of conduct says only students with notes from their parents can skip saying the pledge.  However, it also says teachers can't intervene if a student doesn't take part.

According to attorney Jack Gordon, that's where the district messed-up.

"Unfortunately in this circumstance, the School Board and this particular school, and the administration didn't properly notify the parents of this right and didn't comply with state law," Gordon said.

The School Board, the elementary school principal, and the teacher of the class were given notice of the family’s intent to sue, but state law mandates a six-month period before the litigation can be filed.  

The complaint is seeking damages between $15,000 and $75,000.  Gordon says the real goal is for a judge to confirm the 6-year-old student had a right to kneel during the pledge.

"For a court to make a determination and confirmation and public acknowledgement that what occurred was wrong, is considered misconduct and this will hopefully both generate further discourse, and more importantly prevent other individuals from otherwise suffering the same admonishment for exercising their constitutional rights," Gordon said.

FOX 13 News reached out to the Pasco County School District and were told officials don't comment on pending litigation.

The child at the center of this lawsuit was initially transferred to another class, and has since been taken out of the elementary school.