When Klein Oak High student Mari Oliver refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, her sociology teacher, Benjie Arnold, compared her to “Soviet communists” and “people who condone pedophilia” before threatening to “fail her.” Arnold’s misconduct now appears to have indirectly cost Texas taxpayers $90,000.
A Texas teacher who forced a student to write out the Pledge of Allegiance has settled a civil rights lawsuit for $90,000.
According to NBC News, the agreement was announced Wednesday by American Atheists, the organization which represented 12th grade student Mari Oliver.
Oliver, notes NBC News, filed a lawsuit against sociology teacher Benjie Arnold at Klein Oak High School in Harris County, Texas, about 30 miles north of Houston.
“The Texas Association of School Boards, a risk pool funded by Texas school districts, has paid $90,000 to resolve the case before trial,” American Atheists said in a statement.
The Texas Association of School Boards, like most similar organizations, is funded by school districts’ voluntary disbursement of membership dues–dues which are almost always subsidized by the districts’ taxpayers.
Oliver filed her lawsuit in 2017, saying she was “harassed, disciplined, and retaliated against for sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance.”
In her complaint, American Atheists observed that Oliver “exercised her constitutional right to decline to participate in the Pledge out of her objection to the words, ‘Under God,’ and her belief that the United States does not adequately guarantee ‘liberty and justice for all,’ especially for people of color.”
Oliver, adds NBC News, is African-American.
Despite Oliver’s insistence that she not be compelled to recite the Pledge, her teacher forced her to write down the Pledge of Allegiance under threat of academic discipline.
However, the United States Supreme Court had already ruled in 1943 that students may not be required to salute the American flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance if doing so goes against their religious belief.
Texas law also permits students to file a written request to sit out the pledge.
If such a request is signed by a student’s parent or legal guardian, then their school district and educators must honor it.
Although Oliver’s mother filed the request, her daughter continued to face harassment at school.
Her mom, says NBC News, temporarily pulled her out of school.
“When she returned, the discrimination she faced for sitting out the Pledge resumed and intensified,” American Atheists aid.
While teachers were informed of Oliver’s decision, Arnold continued to act out against his student.
When Arnold asked his students to write out the Pledge of Allegiance, he told Arnold that he would fail her if she refused to comply.
“What you’ve done is leave me no option but to give you a zero, and you can have all the beliefs and resentment and animosity you want,” Arnold allegedly said.
Arnold was later recorded telling his students that he would “pay them to move to Europe,” but would require that they “pay him back double” if they ever wished to return to the United States.
Somewhat ironically, Arnold compared Oliver and students people who refuse to recite the Pledge with “Soviet communists, members of the Islamic faith seeking to impose Sharia law, and those who condone pedophilia.”
Geoffrey T. Blackwell, an attorney for American Atheists, told NBC News that classrooms should be respected as places of education—not spaces for teachers to foist their politics unto students.
“The classroom is not a pulpit. It is a place of education, not indoctrination,” Blackwell said. “This settlement serves as a reminder that students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the classroom.”
Randall Kallinen, another attorney who worked on the case, observed the irony in Texas teachers failing to uphold the very same principles the Pledge strives to enshrine.
“It is incredible—the time and money spent by the Klein Independent School District to stop a student’s free speech,” Kallinen said. “School staff need to teach the Constitution, not violate it.”