It seemed to me in high school, as it does now, that the Pledge of Allegiance is patently untrue. We are not a nation “with liberty and justice for all.” According to the Census Bureau’s current Population Survey, black families earn $57.30 in income for every $100 earned by white families and hold $5.04 in family wealth for every $100 of white family wealth. This discrepancy in family wealth is rooted in the reality that the United States was founded and grew rich on the backs of African slaves and their descendants—injustice is fundamental to our nation’s economic success. In this context, the claim that the United States provides “liberty and justice for all” is either a lie or an assertion that black people deserve the terror and deprivation inflicted upon them by the state. And this economic inequality is simply one of countless examples of the injustice that exists in the United States today.
It was this line of thinking that, as a senior in high school, landed me across the desk of the school principal, who laced her fingers together and explained, tilting her chin toward her collarbone as one often does when addressing a child, that standing for the pledge was a school rule. Refusing, as I had done, could have consequences.
I had come prepared for this. I argued that to be punished for not standing for the pledge was unconstitutional. According to Tinker v. Des Moines, a 1969 decision defending non-disruptive student protest—
“I’m familiar with it,” she interrupted, paraphrasing the Supreme Court’s majority decision, “Students shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate.” But she had selectively memorized Justice Fortas’s famous quote, conveniently omitting its first six words: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” I struggled to put the words in the right order to correct her and puzzled over how to, for the first time in my life, tell an adult, an important adult, that she was wrong.
Despite the fact that many facets of students’ rights have been established by the Supreme Court, teachers and administrators today still feel they can—and are even empowered to—disregard them. Over the past year, high-school students across the country have joined Colin Kaepernick in taking a knee during the national anthem before athletic events, in many cases facing threats of disciplinary action. A Louisiana school district threatened to remove any players who took a knee during the anthem, a move the ACLU called unconstitutional. In California, a high-school teacher lowered a student’s participation grade for not standing for the pledge.
And there’s a legal basis for this assumption: The legal doctrine in loco parentis (Latin for “in place of a parent”) has its roots in English Common Law and has governed the majority of legal issues surrounding the relationship between schools and their students in the United States unimpeded until the middle of the 20th century. According to the logic of in loco parentis, when parents make a choice to send their children to public school school, they are effectively delegating parental responsibilities to administrators. Schools often take this doctrine further, using their power as parental stand-ins to justify “protecting” students from other students’ actions—what some argue is actually a misapplication of in loco parentis, but has nonetheless fueled cases that have frequently worked their way up to the Supreme Court.