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A kid refused to stand for the Pledge, so her teacher lowered her grade

There’s been no shortage of discussion about what does and doesn’t constitute modern patriotism — between Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the National Anthem during football games and the resulting fracas, and counter-pushback from other athletes eager to show support to Kaepernick’s silent form of protest. And now that conversation has entered the classroom.

Native American high school student Leilani Thomas hasn’t stood to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance during class time for years. But now that the rage du jour seems to be proving your patriotism — whether you like it or not — by reciting a song or the nation’s pledge by rote, a teacher finally stepped in to take punitive measures against Thomas by lowering her grade. And um, you can’t do that.

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The school district ended up stepping in when Thomas complained about the grade-docking to remind the teacher who issued the dressing-down that kids don’t in fact surrender the Bill of Rights at the door. Predictably, that’s turned into a round of shouting about “kids these days” and heated arguments about just how respectful you are required to be as a citizen of this country and whether or not we can coerce or force that respect out of someone.

The answer is no, of course. It’s not even a new question.

Interestingly enough, the Pledge is a lot newer than you might imagine; it only first showed up in the form we know it around 1900 in a kid’s magazine and wasn’t even recognized as official until 1942. To hear your bonkers uncle tell it though, it may as well have been engraved onto Plymouth Rock by stars-‘n’-stripes Jesus before the creation of time. And it has always — always — evoked questions about how we can best apply our freedom of speech without surrendering a sense of national unity.

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Even before its official recognition by the government and induction into the national lexicon, it was challenged. By school children, actually. In most of those cases, children in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, which objects to the pledge on the grounds of idolatry, were punished at school and then vindicated in the courts in decisions that continue to assert that forcing someone to say the Pledge isn’t just counterproductive, it’s un-American.

Even as recently as 2006 and 2009, teachers or schools who attempted to punish students for not participating in the Pledge got a ruler to the knuckles for their efforts because the Pledge is a voluntary display of patriotism. Not only that, but the judge in an earlier case in 1969 brought by students protesting the Vietnam War found that the Bill of Rights does in fact extend to students, and so long as they’re on public property (like, oh, a school) they have a right to exercise the freedoms extended to them under the First Amendment.

You would think that this would all be rather common knowledge in a school as Civics 101, and yet every once in a while a teacher or school will attempt to strong-arm a kid into proving they love their country… or else.

It never, ever ends well for the school.

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A little critical thinking often goes a long way. Why the hell would Leilani Thomas — who belongs to a population whose presence predates the “discovery” of America, the Constitution drafted after its Revolution, and certainly the freaking Bellamy Pledge — want to stand and drone on about something she doesn’t believe in?

A lot of kids stand and pledge not because they’ve got Betsy Ross stars in their eyes and an undying love for country. They do it without thought because it’s routine and doesn’t necessarily require any. Thomas gave it a little thought, used the rights guaranteed to her to say, “No thanks,” and then called the person who tried to punish her for it out.

What’s more American than that?

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Image: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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