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Downtown School Starts Reciting Pledge of Allegiance, Sparking Tensions

 Many schools across the city don't have students recite the pledge everyday.
Many schools across the city don't have students recite the pledge everyday.
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Flickr Creative Commons/Big Bob Burns

SOUTH STREET SEAPORT — Students at a Downtown elementary school began reciting the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time last week, sparking tensions among families over an oath that — while required by state law — has quietly fallen out of favor at many schools across the city.

The Peck Slip School — which opened on cobblestoned Peck Slip in 2015, after being temporarily located in makeshift classrooms at the Department of Education headquarters since 2012 — had never made the oath part of its daily routine, according to parents at the school.

But the lack of the pledge, along with no American flags in the classrooms, had been an issue with some parents at the school for several years. Earlier this year, they began pushing the DOE to enforce the rule at the school, parents told DNAinfo New York.

While the parents said their calls for the pledge were not tied to politics, the new daily recitation has become a particularly hot-button issue at the school in the midst of polarizing Trump administration policies and rhetoric related to immigration and nationalism.

"Not having the pledge or flags was something a number of us were concerned about for years, and when we found out it was actually law — something I think many people don't know — we started making calls to the DOE," said one parent, who personally called the agency about the pledge.

She asked that her name not be used because the issue caused intense debate in the school.

"It's a shame that this has become politicized. I'm not a Trump supporter, I just think the pledge is a tradition that honors our country and should be a part of our children's lives."

On March 3, Peck Slip School Principal Maggie Siena sent out an email to parents announcing that the school was going to begin complying with the state law and broadcasting the pledge over its loudspeakers each morning starting March 7.

"As per New York State Education Law 8NYCRR section 108.5, we will be offering an opportunity for students at Peck Slip to say the Pledge of Allegiance in class," Siena wrote.

"Children and adults may opt out of saying the Pledge," she wrote, adding that "The Pledge of Allegiance has an interesting history, which will be a focus of study for our fifth graders in years to come.

"Children who know the Pledge and want to lead it will have the opportunity to do so over the loud speaker," the principal noted in the email, which also included the full text of the pledge for parents interested in teaching it to their children.

Siena did not return request for comment.

Some parents said they are upset that the school began using the pledge without discussing it with parents ahead of time — saying the issue has become particularly charged in light of Donald Trump's presidency.

"Both my grandfathers fought in World War II, and I love this country, but I don't feel like the pledge is the right way to express that, especially at a school with lots of international parents and students who had never even heard about the pledge," said a parent of a third-grader who asked to remain anonymous.

"I've never been comfortable with the 'under God' part — and as I looked into the history of the pledge, it does have anti-immigrant sentiment and we don't need any more of that."

Peck Slip parent Amanda Zink said she values the pledge, while also valuing that participation is a choice.

"I personally believe that it's an important part of our history, and saluting the flag, to my family, represents saluting those service men and women who have fought to protect our rights. So I am for it," Zink said. "If nothing else, it has started a good, healthy dialogue in our school and in my family about what it represents."

A Department of Education spokesman, while not specifically referencing the Peck Slip School, confirmed that state law “requires that public schools have a daily pledge of allegiance to the flag, adding, “If the DOE is informed that a school does not have a daily pledge of allegiance to the flag, we work with the school to ensure they incorporate the pledge."

Some parents said that they'd never really thought much about the pledge either way, or even noticed they didn't offer it at the school. Others said, regardless of politics, they feel the pledge is not a useful way to teach American values and represents antiquated views.

Richard J. Ellis, a politics professor at Willamette University and the author of the book "To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance," said that while the pledge symbolizes patriotism and espousing the ideals of the county, its origin is deeply rooted in anxiety about immigration.

Francis Bellamy wrote the original pledge in 1892 — it has since been tweaked — to be recited by schoolchildren as part of a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in America. 

"It was written as part of a movement that had at its core an anxiety about immigration and about a declining patriotism among the native born," Ellis wrote in an email. "When Bellamy was later asked to explain what he thought the Pledge/flag salute would accomplish he said that it would do its work almost subconsciously. The rote repetition, as he put it, 'would do their thinking for them'."

The "under God" part was added by Congress in 1954 in reaction to the Cold War and the Soviet Union's official atheism. That portion of the pledge has gone on to be challenged in court, though not successfully.

"If God was on our side in the cosmic battle with Communism that was an immensely reassuring thought at a terribly anxious time," Ellis said.

Peck Slip was not the only school in the neighborhood that didn't have a daily pledge. Most public elementary schools in Lower Manhattan don't recite the oath, parents at those schools said.

"It's not a snub, or for lack of love of country. I just think the schools schedules are really busy, and the pledge wasn't ever part of their routine," said Shannon Burkett, a parent at TriBeCa elementary school P.S. 150, where the pledge is not recited. 

"Our schools are very international, and I do think that now, in light of Trump, if this was a decision that was forced upon us, and not something we would have decided as a school, it would be concerning."

But Peck Slip School's PTA co-president, Emily Hellstrom, said she and other parents are working hard "to make sure that we have a safe space for parents to be heard on any and all issues that concern the school," adding, "Thankfully our principal, Maggie Siena, is also dedicated to open and honest discussion.

"It is important to talk through people's varying views on the law, and I think we have an opportunity to practice and model civil discourse in a time when there seems to be very little of it," Hellstrom added.