By Kimberly C. Moore
An attorney for an 11-year-old Polk County student, arrested for disrupting a school function and resisting arrest without violence after refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, said he is filing a civil rights complaint with the United States Department of Education.
Roderick Ford, an attorney with the Cochran Law Firm in Tampa, said he and the student's family are also hoping the state attorney's office will not move forward with formal charges against the student because he was exercising his constitutionally protected right of free speech.
"There is an improper constitutional deprivation of rights that goes to the heart of the founding of this country," Ford said during an interview Monday evening. "He is very proud to be an American and he was acting in the greatest tradition of being an American."
Ford's comments stem from the arrest and suspension of the sixth-grader at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy on Feb. 4 after the student refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and was then asked to stand up by a substitute teacher, Ana Alvarez.
"I asked the student to stand up for the pledge and he answered that he won't because the flag of this country was racist," Alvarez wrote in a statement to police. "He then started to explain why the National Anthem was offensive to black people."
Spokesmen for the Lakeland Police Department and Polk County Public Schools stressed that the student at the magnet school for gifted students was not arrested for refusing to participate in the pledge.
"Students are not required to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance," according to a statement from the district Monday morning.
The student's mother, Dhakira Talbot, said there was at least one other student who was also not standing and she didn't understand why her son was singled out.
"I just want people to know that my son is not a monster, he is not a disrespectful kid," Talbot said, wiping away tears. She said her son was doing what she has taught him to do. "You standing up for yourself is not wrong."
She said she and her son have been emotionally overwhelmed by the media attention surrounding the incident. Stories have appeared in The Washington Post, NBC Nightly News, USA Today and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others, regarding the incident.
"You don't know that feeling of having to raise your kids on what to do if you're stopped by police," said Talbot, who noted she is two classes shy of a business degree from college.
Alvarez's statement shows she told the student that "Why, if it was so bad here, he did not go to another place to (live)." She explained that she moved here from Cuba and that "the day I feel I'm not welcome here anymore, I would find another place to (live)."
According to the arrest affidavit, the substitute teacher called the office to have the student removed. School Resource Officer Carlos Cortes and School Dean Michael Simpson responded and asked the student to leave the room with them.
The student "continued to yell that the teacher had told him to, 'Go back to Africa'," Cortes wrote in his report, adding that he asked the student "several times (over 20 times)" to leave. He said the student continued saying, " 'I'm not leaving. Do your job and take her, she's the racist one who told me to go back to Africa."
Cortes also wrote in the report that the student told the dean not to touch him and that he would call the police on him. After finally leaving the classroom, the student continued yelling in the hallway that "You're all racist." When he entered the office he began crying and screamed, "I'm going to beat that teacher."
The student also asked to call his mother. When he wasn't allowed, he went to the guidance office. School Principal Brian Andrews took the student by his arms, telling him to calm down, the student told him that "I'm going to get you fired. I'm going to get all of you fired."
District officials said Alvarez will not be hired again as a substitute teacher in Polk County. They said they are reviewing their training process for substitutes.
The student was taken to a juvenile facility for evaluation, but has since been released. Talbot said she has transferred her son to a different school.
Kay Fields, the only black member of the Polk County School Board, said she is awaiting the results of an investigation.
"I just think it's unfortunate, especially over the pledge," Fields said Monday afternoon at Girls Inc., a nonprofit that helps underprivileged girls with homework and social skills. Fields recites the Pledge of Allegiance before each School Board meeting and said she also stands for the national anthem.
"Times are different today," Fields said. "If I had a girl at Girls Inc. who didn't want to stand for the pledge, I wouldn't make a big deal of it. I might pull her aside and talk with her about it to find out why and talk with her parents about it."
(c)2019 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)