Fla. boy's arrest not over pledge but for disturbance, police say

School officer made decision to arrest student

By DARRAN SIMON, CNN

(CNN) - A Florida school district said that a student who refused to take part in the Pledge of Allegiance was arrested for becoming disruptive, not for refusing to participate.

On February 4, the student at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland refused to take part in the Pledge of Allegiance, according to the Polk County School District.

A substitute teacher in charge of the class was unaware that the district's student code of conduct doesn't mandate students' participation, the district said.

The substitute teacher said in a written statement that when she asked the student, who is black, to stand for the pledge, he "answered that he won't because the flag of the country is racist. He then started to explain why the national anthem was offensive to black people." The teacher's statement to the school district was obtained by CNN affiliate Spectrum Bay News 9.

The teacher exchanged words with the student and called the school administration, according to the district. A school resource officer also responded.

"We do not condone the substitute's behavior," the district said in a statement Monday. "We respect our students' right to freedom of expression and we are committed to protecting that critical right while ensuring peaceful classrooms so all students can learn."

A school administrator and the officer asked the student to leave the class, but the 6th grader refused, Lakeland police said. Lakeland police said the student, who left the classroom, created another disturbance, and made threats as he was escorted to the office.

He was arrested for disrupting a school function and resisting an officer without violence and transported to the Juvenile Assessment Center, police said.

'He chose to change schools'

Roderick Ford, an attorney for the student and his mother, said he plans to file a complaint with the office of civil rights for the US Department of Education.

Ford said the sixth-grader was suspended for three days and is now enrolled in a private school.

"He chose to change schools because of this incident," Ford said.

Student's attorney: 'They overreacted'

Ford says the family disputes the version of events in the police report.

"It's our position that the police report has been largely fabricated in order to justify the wrongful arrest," Ford told CNN on Monday.

He said the student had never used the word racist: "They interjected the word racist to mischaracterize the event."

Ford said the student indicated that he was not participating in the pledge because he felt that the American flag represented unfair and discriminatory treatment of Black people.

"At that point, it is our position that this young man was well within his legal rights," he said.

"The substitute teacher then says, 'If you don't like it here, go back to where you came from.' And he said 'Do you mean Africa?' And she says, 'Yes,'" Ford said. "The young man then says, 'You are our teacher you should not be talking to students this way.'" At that point, Ford said, the teacher called security to the classroom.

Any subsequent altercation with the security officer took place outside the classroom, meaning the classroom was not disrupted as alleged, the attorney said.

"This is no different than someone making a more legally sound argument in a court of law, it's just that this 11-year old put it in the way he articulates it," Ford said. "They overreacted."

Ford said the student had been due to appear in court Tuesday morning but that his appearance had been moved to another court as they planned to fight the charges. It is unclear when the new hearing will take place.

The case may apparently be over.

Florida State Attorney Brian Haas said prosecutors don't anticipate the case will be referred to his office.

"We don't have a case, and as far as I know it's a closed matter," he said.

Student's mother says he 'shouldn't have been arrested'

The boy's mother told Spectrum Bay News 9 she doesn't understand why the situation escalated. Dhakira Talbot told the station her son is in gifted classes and had been bullied at the school in the past. She has not returned calls from CNN.

"I'm upset, I'm angry. I'm hurt," Talbot told the station. "More so for my son. My son has never been through anything like this. And I feel like they should've handled this differently."

"If any disciplinary action should've been taken, it should've been with the school," she said.

She said her son, who the station said is 11 years old, "shouldn't have been arrested."

News of the arrest has drawn criticism that the First Amendment rights of the student were violated. "This is outrageous. Students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the schoolhouse gates," The ACLU of Florida wrote on a tweet. "This is a prime example of the over-policing of Black students in school."

Substitute teacher no longer allowed to work in district schools

The dean of students who responded to the classroom asked the student to leave the classroom more than 20 times, Lakeland police said.

The campus' school officer, who responded to the classroom, made the decision to arrest the student, school officials said. That officer was not called by the administration, the district said.

No one from the middle school asked for charges to be filed and for the student to be arrested, school officials said.

"This arrest was based on the student's choice to disrupt the classroom, make threats and resisting the officer's effort to leave the classroom," Lakeland police said.

The substitute teacher who was involved in the incident was asked to leave the campus immediately, after giving a written statement, the district said. She will no longer be allowed to work district schools, according to the district.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized what the substitute teacher asked the student to do during the pledge. The substitute said that she asked the student to stand for the pledge. The story and headline have been updated.

Copyright 2019 by CNN NewSource. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.