15-year-old Melissa Barnwell was walking to class one day at her South Carolina high school when she was allegedly accosted by a teacher for not stopping to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. After reportedly being yelled at and pushed against a wall, Barnwell was sent to the principal’s office but was never told that she was right and the teacher was wrong.
Barnwell, with the help of her parents, is now suing the teacher, principal, school district, and state education officials. The Nov. 29, 2022 incident left her “extremely upset and emotionally disturbed,” according to the lawsuit, as she was purportedly singled out as the only Black student in the hallway when her peers were similarly not reciting the pledge while it played over the intercom.
“I was completely and utterly disrespected,” Barnwell stated plainly at a news conference Thursday (March 9), per The State newspaper. “No one has apologized, no one has acknowledged my hurt… The fact that the school is defending that kind of behavior is unimaginable.”
A state law passed more than 30 years ago requires South Carolina public schools to play the Pledge of Allegiance at a specific time every day. But, the law doesn’t allow for punishing anyone who refuses to say the pledge in a non-disruptive manner. The Barnwells’ federal lawsuit claims that everyone involved in the case violated Barnwell’s civil and First Amendment rights to both free speech or not to speak at all.
“The thing that’s beautiful about America is we have freedoms,” Tyler Bailey, the family’s lawyer, declared in the presser. “Students in our schools should feel safe. They should not feel threatened for exercising their constitutional rights.”
After the traumatizing incident, the teenager called her parents in tears and explained what happened. They never heard from the school or the district and decided to take matters into their own hands.
“I was just in disbelief,” she recalled of the attack. “You can hear me say in the video, ‘Get your hands off of me.'”
Lexington School District One’s lawyer is preparing a response to the Barnwells’ challenge, which is expected to be filed in the coming weeks. River Bluff High School’s website indicates that the teacher, Nicole Livingston, and principal, Jacob Smith, are still employed at the majority-white school.