Education

West Harrison student says he was ‘forced’ to stand for Pledge

Harrison County School Board members work Monday during their regular meeting. They met with a woman in a closed session, where she said her son, a West Harrison High School student, had been forced to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. She said he was threatened with punishment when he refused.
Harrison County School Board members work Monday during their regular meeting. They met with a woman in a closed session, where she said her son, a West Harrison High School student, had been forced to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. She said he was threatened with punishment when he refused. wmuller@sunherald.com

A West Harrison High School student was threatened with disciplinary actions for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at school, the student’s mother said.

Principal Dana Trochessett threatened him with demerits and suspension if he did not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and questioned the boy about being a Jehovah’s Witness, the ninth-grader’s mother said.

The mother met Monday night with the Harrison County School Board.

In a discussion with other parents gathered outside the board meeting, she said the situation is neither an attempt to attract media attention nor part of the political controversy surrounding the refusal of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other football players to stand for the national anthem.

“He was doing this before any football player decided it meant something,” she said. “My son hasn’t stood for the Pledge since the fourth grade. None of my kids have.”

The woman requested anonymity to protect her son’s privacy and for fear of any backlash at her job.

She has always told her children they didn’t have to stand as long as they remained respectful and weren’t doing it simply to seek attention, she said.

Her children adhered to those instructions without incident for years, she said, until her son entered his freshman year at West Harrison High in August.

Superintendent Roy Gill said the district doesn’t have any policy that forces a student to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. Gill said Tuesday the matter was resolved after he and the board members met with the mother.

School officials could have done a better job handling the situation, he said.

The student’s mother said Trochessett “forced” the student to stand, threatening him with demerits and suspension if he did not comply. The principal later made him report to the school’s front office every morning during the Pledge of Allegiance instead of reporting to his classroom with the rest of the students, the boy’s mother said.

Trochessett treated him differently because she believed he was a Jehovah’s Witness, the mother said, and asked if that’s why he refused to stand.

“That is none of her business,”the mother said. “It doesn’t matter what we are.”

After speaking with the principal, the boy’s mother brought her concerns to the superintendent and then to the school board.

Board members did not openly comment on the matter during Monday’s meeting, but they did speak with the student’s mother in executive session, which is a closed meeting.

Advocates from the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition and the Mississippi Rising Coalition, organizations that promote civil rights and social justice efforts, also attended Monday’s meeting.

“It is one thing to disagree with what someone says, but to use your power within the school to punish, threaten to punish or imply punishment is an abuse of that power,” Mississippi Safe Schools advocate Anna Davis said. “It is definitely not creating safer schools and communities nor encouraging young people to think for themselves. A teacher and especially an administrator has the ability to intimidate whether or not they mean to, which just makes these kinds of abuses that much worse.”

There also were questions about the board’s use of executive session to discuss the matter.

The board was meeting in executive session on an unrelated issue when an officer working at the meeting came into the hallway and said the board wanted to speak with the boy’s mother. When the rest of the audience, including advocates from the Mississippi Rising Coalition, tried to enter as well, they were denied access.

According to the state’s Open Meetings Act, a board must reopen a meeting to the public after an executive session and announce what, if any, action it took. A board is not allowed to remain in executive session to discuss an entirely separate matter.

School Board President Bill Bradley later said the board reopened the meeting very briefly and immediately voted to go into another executive session concerning the Pledge incident while the public audience was outside the room.

After the boy’s mother emerged from the closed session, she said the problem was resolved. Her son would no longer be forced to stand, or go to the principal’s office, during the morning Pledge, she said.

Reached by email Wednesday, Trochessett would not comment on the incident.

Justin Vicory, Sun Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.

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