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The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the superintendent of Lawton Public Schools in Oklahoma on Friday, warning that the recent handcuffing and suspension of two students who refused to stand for the national anthem violates their First Amendment rights.
In a previous interview with The Black Wall Street Times, Samantha Woods, mother of 15-year-old LaAveion and senior Amariona Woods, detailed her painful reaction to discovering that her daughters were taken out of a pep rally on Thursday, Sept 2nd, handcuffed by school resource officers, and suspended after they argued with a teacher who demanded they stand for the national anthem.
Days after our initial report was published, Ms. Woods informed us the school had extended the girls’ suspension to a full thirty days. Now, the ACLU has joined the family in calling for the school to reverse the suspension and protect the free speech of all students in a letter shared with The Black Wall Street Times.
ACLU joins family after school suspends daughters
Megan Lambert is Legal Director for the ACLU of Oklahoma Foundation.
“Discipline of any kind for the politically expressive choice not to stand during the National Anthem or other displays of nationalism is a direct violation of the right to free speech protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Lambert wrote in a letter sent to Superintendent Kevin Hime of Lawton Public Schools on Friday, Sept. 17.
She noted a decades-old U.S. Supreme Court case reaffirming that right.
Students feel targeted by race
“Both students expressed that they chose not to stand because they do not feel a sense of belonging or equal treatment in their school community or in the United States on the basis of their race,” she added in the letter.
In our initial report, LaAveion and Amariona detailed how a teacher named Ms. Reese, which Lawton High lists as a social studies teacher on its website, allegedly singled them out for not standing, despite other students nearby doing the same.
“There was a student next to me sitting down, too,” senior Amariona Woods previously 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.
In an emailed statement sent to this reporter on Wednesday, September 8, Lawton High Principal Charles Kirchen responded to our initial report.
“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,” he previously stated.
ACLU letter calls out school-to-prison pipeline
Yet, in a phone interview on Friday evening, ACLU of Oklahoma Foundation Legal Director Lambert said the case is yet another example of how the inclusion of resource officers in schools exacerbates the school-to-prison pipeline.
“They were disciplined for something they were well within their rights to do by a teacher, and that teacher chose to escalate that situation by involving two school resource officers,” Lambert told The Black Wall St. Times. “Those resource officers arrested the students and they are potentially facing charges.”
The ACLU considers the school-to-prison pipeline “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems,” according to their website.
Nationally, Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than White students, according to Civil Rights Data Collection from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.
At Lawton High School specifically, Black students made up 28.9% of enrollment and nearly 64% of out-of-school suspensions in 2017, the most recent year in which data was available. Meanwhile, White students made up 35.5% of enrollment and only 27.3% of out-of-school suspension.
In a recent text message, Samantha Woods, mother of the two suspended Lawton High School students, said she was grateful to have the support of the ACLU.
“I feel blessed and in good hands. They are so amazing, supporting and understanding,” Woods told this reporter.
Letter calls for immediate reversal of suspension
In her letter addressed to Superintendent Hime, ACLU of Oklahoma Foundation Legal Director Lambert highlighted racism’s role in the girls’ refusal to stand for the anthem. She also highlighted the role school resource officers play in the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Their arrest by Lawton High School’s School Resource Officers for peacefully expressing dissent is yet another example of the racism that motivated their constitutionally protected choice not to stand,” the letter stated.
“The presence of School Resource Officers exacerbates the school-to-prison pipeline, disproportionately targeting students of color and leading to higher rates of incarceration for Black and Brown communities,” the letter added.
It urges the school district to immediately reverse the “unlawful suspension” of LaAveion and Amariona Woods. It also asks the district’s staff to “respect students’ right to decline participation in the National Anthem and other displays and professions of nationalism or other political beliefs.”
Lambert said she’s hopeful the district will respond positively.
“I’m optimistic that the superintendent will remedy the problem. That would be the far easier path,” she told The Black Wall St. Times.
In a response to the ACLU’s letter, on Monday, the school district released a statement, saying “no person was arrested, handcuffed, or disciplined at LPS nor would we do so for refusing to stand for the National Anthem.” However, when KFOR pressed the district on why the students were disciplined, they refused to give details, citing students’ privacy. The district said it has turned over the letter to its legal team.
(Editor’s note: Deon Osborne is a former Lawton High School student)