It’s a common routine in high school classrooms across the country: chairs scraping on the floor, the sounds of students shuffling to their feet and then, in unison, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
On the first day of the school year last month at Lower Lake High School in northern California, Leilani Thomas did what she usually does when her classmates recite the pledge. She stayed seated.
But for the first time in several years, her new teacher stopped and asked why she and a friend weren’t standing for the daily recital.
“She told me I was being disrespectful and I was pretty mad,” Thomas told KXTV. “She was being disrespectful to me also, saying I was making bad choices, and I don’t have the choice to sit during the pledge.”
Thomas, who is Native American, said she has been sitting out the pledge since she was a second grader, KPIX reported.
“It’s the reason, because of the history that happened here on my land, my people’s land,” Thomas told the news station in an interview on campus. “I go by that and I don’t agree with it. So I’m not going to stand for the people who did this to my people.”
Thomas told KXTV that her parents had ingrained that history in her early in life. “My mom and my dad brought up what it meant to us and our people,” she said. “So I just started sitting down.”
When Thomas and her friend got their first grades of the year on Sep. 9, they noticed something different in their reports: two points docked for not participating in the pledge, KPIX reported.
Thomas went back to her teacher and asked for an explanation.
“If you really, really have an argument and feel so strongly about, then I need to see it written out,” the teacher said in a conversation Thomas recorded and provided to the station. “Like, why? Why? Because here’s the thing — those people, they’re not alive anymore, your ancestors.”
Thomas and her father took the recording to school officials, who then moved her and her friend to a different class.
The district superintendent, upon hearing Thomas’ story, said they would be addressing the issue with the teacher who docked points.
“Students don’t lose their first amendment rights when they walk in the door,” Donna Becnel told KPIX. “We are dealing with the teacher on this.”
Thomas said she plans to continue sitting out the pledge.