A California teacher had a harsh message for a Native American high school student: Refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance could cost you your grades.
Leilani Thomas is a 14-year-old freshman at Lower Lake High School who identifies with the indigenous Pomo tribe in Northern California. Thomas has protested the Pledge of Allegiance since she was in the second grade because of America’s violent history of settler colonialism over indigenous communities, reported KXTV, a local Sacramento news station.
So far, Thomas hadn’t experienced backlash. But that changed on Thursday when a teacher at her high school told her she didn’t have the right to protest, and docked her participation grade in response.
“She told me I was being disrespectful and I was pretty mad,” Thomas told KXTV. “She was being disrespectful to me also, saying I was making bad choices, and I don’t have the choice to sit during the pledge.”
Silent protests have gained traction in the three weeks since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem in a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.
Kaepernick’s goal: to call attention to racism and how police brutality disproportionately impacts people of color. But Thomas shows this fight is neither new nor isolated to black people and racist policing practices.
“I feel like it's a lie to me in, like, what they did to my people," Thomas told the local NBC News affiliate. "Not only here, but around the country. It's still going on to this day.”
One example: the ongoing protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline being built near the Standing Rock Sioux’s reservation in North Dakota.
While the pipeline is meant to transport crude oil to use as fuel, oil spills are fairly common and companies rarely catch them. As a result, the Standing Rock Sioux and allies find themselves fighting for clean water against corporate interests. But the US government’s long history of undermining tribal sovereignty makes the fight that much more onerous.
Donna Becnel, the superintendent of the Konocti School District, affirmed Thomas, telling KXTV that students “have the same rights when they walk into the schoolhouse [as] anybody else does,” including their right to free speech. Thomas has been transferred to another class.
According to KXTV, no disciplinary action for the teacher has been announced at this time. But Thomas, like Kaepernick, isn’t backing down.
“I’m understanding more that it means a lot and to a lot of my people also,” Thomas said.