(Editor’s note: This article has been updated with an emailed statement from Lawton Senior High School’s 12th grade principal Charles Kirchen.)
LaAveion Woods woke up on Thursday, September 2nd, ready to celebrate her 15th birthday. Those celebrations turned sour, however, when she and her old sister were later detained by law enforcement at their own school.
In an interview with The Black Wall Street Times, members of the Woods family, whose two daughters attend Lawton High School in Lawton, Oklahoma, detailed the moment a teacher began to argue with students who refused to stand during the reciting of the national anthem.
Samantha Woods has two daughters who attend Lawton High School–15-year-old LaAvian Woods in the 9th grade and senior Amariona Woods. Ms. Woods, who works from home, said she found out her daughter was being detained via a FaceTime call with her niece, who called Ms. Woods as her daughters were being handcuffed by a law enforcement officer.
Family says school detained, suspended daughters for refusing to stand for anthem
“They were at a pep rally. And everybody was standing up to do the national anthem. And they chose not to stand,” Ms. Woods told The Black Wall St. Times via zoom.
She said a teacher named Ms. Reese approached them demanding they stand.
With a population barely over 90,000, Lawton is relatively more diverse than other cities in Oklahoma of similar size. About 57 percent of Lawtonians identify as White alone, 20 percent identify as Black or African American, and 10 percent identify as belonging to two or more racial groups, according to U.S. Census Data.
Forced patriotism is “unconstitutional”
According to Lawton Senior High School’s website, a staff member named Kevan Reese is listed as a social studies teacher. Ms. Woods and her daughters allege this teacher attempted to force them to stand for the national anthem.
Yet a 1943 United States Supreme Court case had already made it clear that forcing students to show patriotism was unconstitutional.
In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, students belonging to the Jehovah’s Witness faith claimed saluting the flag was against their religion. The Supreme Court agreed, saying forcing students to comply was a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters of politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion[,] or force citizens to confess by word their faith therein,” said Justice Robert H. Jackson at the time, affirming the rights of students.
Students charged with disturbing the peace
When the Woods sisters continued to refuse social studies teacher Kevan Reeves’ demands to stand for the anthem, Ms. Woods said the teacher wouldn’t take no for an answer, causing her daughters to become agitated.
“That’s when they got loud, and the teacher went off and told, I guess a police officer, that one of my daughters threatened her. So, that’s when they were detained, handcuffed. My niece called me on FaceTime. I seen my oldest daughter in handcuffs.”
Ms. Woods said she then immediately tried calling the school to understand the situation while the daughters’ father, Larry Woods, went up to the school to confront administration.
Ultimately, Ms. Woods said her daughters LaAveion and Amariona Woods were charged with disturbing the peace and suspended from school grounds for a week.
The Black Wall Street Times reached out to Lawton High’s main office. When asked for comment about the Woods family’s account of what happened, an office worker responded saying “some of that is true and some of it’s not.” The worker added that she would relay the message to Lawton High’s 12th grade principal Charles Kirchen for a return phone call.
On Wednesday, September 8, Principal Kirchen responded to our request for comment in an emailed statement saying, “I can assure you that no student was removed, ejected, or arrested for failing to stand for the National Anthem at Lawton High School. Unfortunately, I am unable to comment on anything that relates to students due to privacy laws.”
Students say race played a factor
For their part, the two students say they weren’t the only ones who refused to stand.
“There was a student next to me sitting down, too,” senior Amariona Woods said. The sisters, who identify as Black, Puerto Rican and Indian, said there were several other students around them who also remained seated, with one main difference.
“They were White,” LaAveion said.
The Woods family identified Ms. Reese as the teacher who approached their group at the pep rally, demanding everyone stand for the national anthem. While the sisters say they’ve had teachers who never bothered them when they refused to stand in the past, Ms. Reese was a different story.
“At first we were just ignoring her,” LaAveion said. But once Ms. Reese demanded she come with her, LaAveion’s older sister Amariona followed.
“And then we were in the hallway, we were sitting on the bench. And the officer, she was handcuffing me. I was asking her what I was being handcuffed for. And she couldn’t even tell me,” 15-year-old LaAveion added.
For coming to her younger sister’s aid, Amariona said she, too was handcuffed.
Family accuses school of kicking out students without notifying parents
Moreover, the sisters say their half sister and cousin, two others who were standing by, were also suspended and physically escorted out of the school before parents were notified.
Ms. Woods said she was on the phone when she overheard a man tell her niece to get out of the school.
“How are you going to tell them to get out the school? Where are they supposed to go? This is a 14-year-old little girl.”
Ms. Woods said her niece’s mom planned to meet with school officials on Tuesday about the incident.
According to the Woods sisters, the pep rally had just started, with an auditorium full of loud students. Nevertheless, the sisters were detained and charged with disturbing the peace, according to Ms. Woods.
“I feel like it was racist because there was all other kids of people sitting down, majority of White people sitting down. And they came up to us,” LaAveion told The Black Wall St. Times.
Students’ father confronts school administrators
“I just feel like it’s stupid. If we tell her no, we don’t wanna stand up. She should’ve just walked away,” Amariona said.
During the incident, when Ms. Woods witnessed her daughter being handcuffed on a FaceTime video, she said she noticed one of the school’s principals in the video and immediately asked her niece, who was using her daughter’s phone to record, to give the phone to the principal.
Ms. Woods said she asked the principal why her daughters were being detained. She said the principal told her he couldn’t give her any information at the time. Instead, he directed Ms. Woods’ daughters to “get out of the school,” according to Ms. Woods.
She said she’s still seeking answers from the school.
Students don’t want to return to Lawton High
The incident comes a year after Ms. Woods says her younger daughter, LaAveion was called the n-word when she was in 8th grade at Central Middle School. Ms. Woods said LaAveion was charged with assault and battery for her response to the racial slur while the student who made the comment wasn’t disciplined.
Demoralized by this most recent situation, the sisters said they don’t want to return to Lawton High.
“And they wonder why kids don’t want to participate in nothing. Look how they get treated,” Ms. Woods said.
Several organizers are planning a protest outside of Lawton High at 601 NW Fort Sill Blvd in Lawton on Friday, September 10 at 10 a.m., according to a Facebook event page.
Following our reporting on this story, Ms. Woods informed us that Lawton High extended the suspension of her daughters to 30 days.
“When I asked why, all he kept repeating was ‘from the incidents that occurred that day’,” Ms. Woods told the Black Wall St. Times via email.
We will update this story as we receive more information and statements from school administrators.
(Author’s note: Deon Osborne is a former Lawton High student.)