Locals are divided over an apology issued by Pine Bush High School in Orange County after the school received complaints because a student recited the United States Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic as part of a series during foreign language week.
Following the reading, some cars in the parking lot of the school sported the words, “We live in America. Speak English.” Other cars had American flags on the roofs.
A statement from the district apologized “to any students, staff or community members who found this activity disrespectful” and said the reading was intended to “promote the fact that those who speak a language other than English still pledge to salute this great country.”
Jean Gilmore, a former English teacher at Pine Bush High School, said the district never should have apologized.
“The pledge is the pledge — no matter what language it’s said in,” she said. “The people in the community making nasty comments are allowing stereotyping by their assumption that all Arabic speakers are terrorists.”
After the apology from the district, many alumni of the high school began letter writing campaigns to express their diverse opinions and anger over the situation.
Pine Bush High School 2011 graduate Pierce VanDunk spearheaded one of the letter writing campaigns, encouraging fellow alumnus of the district to speak out against the apology.
In his letter, VanDunk said that as a minority and as an older brother of two current students in the district, he was dismayed by the fact that the district is allowing outside community pressures to impinge on student’s rights to a culturally competent education. VanDunk was upset by the apology of the school and the district’s subsequent decision to “only recite the Pledge of Allegiance in English as recommended by the Commissioner of Education.”
Pine Bush Central School District officials told the Times Herald Record there were no plans for a high school assembly after the controversy created by the reaction to the pledge reading.
Following the controversy, a group of veterans attended a Board of Education meeting to express their viewpoints on the decision. Some said they believed reciting the pledge in Arabic showed a lack of respect for veterans, according to a Times Herald Record article.
“I’m not bashing the students — it’s a learning curve for everybody,” Raymond Thurse, a Desert Storm-era veteran who lives in Middletown, said during the board address. “But why would you pick the Pledge of Allegiance? You could have picked something else. Why would it have to be that?”
Three years ago, parents in Pine Bush filed a lawsuit against the school district saying alleged anti-Semitic bullying had happened there for years. VanDunk said the diversity issue at the school runs deep and the pledge apology demonstrates another instance where the district has shown a lack of support for diversity.
“I’m annoyed that the school basically allowed itself to get bullied by some of the families in the district,” he said. “I think a lot of people, especially people that are seeing this in the news and don’t actually know Pine Bush, are misreading the situation and getting the impression that the school district is this backward, suppressionist institution. I don’t want to suggest that the school district is evil and is out to get Arabic-speakers, but I do want to say that the district really displayed its lack of backbone in this situation.”
Gilmore said from here she thinks the school needs to encourage diversity in order to promote unity amid the situation.
“I don’t know what they can do to get their credibility back except allow more things like [the pledge reading] and stop being scared of a narrow minded, provincial community,” Gilmore said. “The school district is there to educate a community and in my opinion, should continue to champion diversity in every way they are able.”