Recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance Divides Vermont Town

No one is sure when daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance fell by the wayside at Woodbury Elementary School.

But efforts to restore them have erupted into a bitter dispute in this town of about 800 residents, with school officials blocking the exercise from classrooms over concerns that it holds children who don't participate up to scorn.

U.S. schoolchildren have long been able to opt out of reciting the pledge for religious reasons. But unlike other pledge controversies, this one centers on how and where schoolchildren say it, not whether they should.

"The whole thing is tearing our community apart," said Heather Lanphear, 39, the mother of a first-grader and an opponent of reciting the pledge in the classroom.

The brouhaha in the Vermont school began in September, when parent Ted Tedesco began circulating petitions calling for the return of pledge recitation as a daily practice in the 19th-century schoolhouse, which has 55 children in kindergarten through sixth grade.

School officials agreed to resume it as a daily exercise, but not in the classroom.

"We don't want to isolate children every day in their own classroom or make them feel they're different," said Principal Michaela Martin.

Instead, starting last week, a sixth grade student was assigned to go around to the four classrooms before classes started, gathering anyone who wanted to say it and then walking them up creaky wooden steps to a second-floor gymnasium, where he led them in the pledge.

About half the students chose to participate, Martin said.

Tedesco, 55, a retired Marine Corps major, and others who signed his petitions didn't like that solution, calling it disruptive and inappropriate because it put young children in the position of having to decide between pre-class play time and leaving the classroom to say the pledge.

"Saying the pledge in the classroom is legal, convenient and traditional," Tedesco said. "Asking kindergarten through sixth-graders who want to say the pledge to leave their classrooms to do so is neither convenient nor traditional."

Martin and school board chairwoman Retta Dunlap defended the practice, saying it restored the pledge to the school as requested, preserved the rights of students who — for political or religious reasons — didn't want to participate, and gave others the opportunity to pledge their allegiance.

"I was happy to have it upstairs. I think it's important that all the kids share in it together," said parent Ellen Demers, 42.

On Friday, in front of a reporter and photographer, the routine changed again.

Just before 8 a.m., Martin herded all the school's students — and a handful of teachers, parents and other community members who showed up that day — into a cramped foyer that adjoins the first-floor classrooms and told sixth-grader Nathan Gilbert, 12, to lead them in the pledge.

Most recited it; some didn't.

Afterward, 10 adults streamed down the steps and outside, forming a circle around Dunlap for a heated discussion in which they pressed for an explanation of why it couldn't be said in the classrooms.

The format should be left to the school, Dunlap said.

"The children will get used to it, and they'll know what's expected of them," she said.

In an interview, Martin said the point of having the whole school gather for the pledge was to protect children who don't participate in it.

"If you're in a classroom with 15 students and you choose not to say the pledge, it's much more obvious than a group setting. When they're saying it in a group of 55, it's may not be so obvious. We don't want to isolate children," she said.

Tedesco pulled his two children out of the school last week but says the reason was academic quality, not the pledge. He plans to continue lobbying for classroom recitation.

"There's no way a heckler's veto should abridge the constitutional rights of the majority," he said.