LEWISTON — A Lewiston High School senior requested the School Committee amend the district’s patriotic exercises policy to remove the requirement of a signed note for students to abstain from standing for or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

“We propose to change the current policy to more closely reflect state and national law, specifically that students do not need to stand or recite the pledge under any circumstances with or without the note from a parent or guardian,” Nafisa Tasnia said.

Tasnia told the committee she was speaking “on behalf of the restorative justice club and all of the students who have been affected by this issue.”

Chairman Bruce Damon, the Ward 1 representative, later said the student’s concerns would later be considered in the policy subcommittee.

The patriotic exercises policy, which was written in 2000 and last reviewed in 2012, is outdated, she argued. According to her research, the legal statute referenced at the end of the policy was “radically changed” by the state in 2011.

Lewiston’s policy does not reflect these changes, she said, specifically pointing to the third paragraph which requires students to have written permission to abstain from the Pledge of Allegiance.

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“Students who object to participating in the flag salute as a matter of conscience shall be excused from doing so upon submission of a request in writing and signed by a parent/guardian, which provides evidence of sincere conviction,” according to the policy.

Lewiston school district’s policy regarding patriotic exercises, including the Pledge of Allegiance. Lewiston school district policies manual

South Portland High School faculty overwhelmingly supported a similar policy change in 2015, but not without controversy. The campaign led by three students garnered national attention.

No student or staff member will be compelled to participate in reciting the pledge during the daily reading of the Pledge of Allegiance,” according to the student handbook. “No student or staff member will be compelled to participate by standing during the daily reading of the Pledge of Allegiance. Those individuals choosing not to participate during the daily reading of the Pledge of Allegiance are expected to be quiet and respectful.”

Tasnia also cited a 1943 ruling by the Supreme Court which found that compelling students to salute the flag was a violation of their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

She also shared testimonials from other students. She said a few were kicked out of class for refusing to stand for the flag salute.

“These students were taken away from their learning environment,” Tasnia said. “Not only are those students missing important class time, it is affecting the way they create relationships in the class with their teacher.”

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Many students wish to abstain for religious reasons, she said.

“Some students feel that their teachers and schools were pushing their beliefs onto them, especially when the pledge does not resonate with them,” Tasnia said. “We believe school should be a place where students feel safe expressing their beliefs, where they are seen for who they are, and a place where we can learn about each other without worrying about penal consequences from the school.”

School Committee representatives requested additional items be considered by the committee in future meetings.

Ward 3 representative Elizabeth Eames asked the committee to discuss assisting students who may not be on track to graduate on time due to COVID-19 disruptions.

Ward 2 representative Janet Beaudoin also asked to discuss the pooled COVID-19 testing program in schools now that the district is no longer contact tracing students.

“It just seems like a lot of time and resources for our schools and our nurses and our staff that perhaps really isn’t needed anymore in this school year,” Beaudoin said. “I could be wrong with that, but it just seems like we’ve taken some different approaches with CDC recommendations, I just don’t know how effective pooled testing is at this point.”

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