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Young Students Stand United

Education: Elementary pupils across the region join President Bush in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in an event synchronized with schools nationally.

September 18, 2002|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sixth-grader Rachel Yu gripped an American flag in her left hand, placed the other across her heart and in a steady voice chanted the Pledge of Allegiance.

"I'm not just holding the flag for the school but the whole United States," said Rachel, dressed in red, white and blue. "I really wanted to hold the flag, because I'm patriotic and I'll stay patriotic."

In a moment meant to stoke feelings of national unity and purge the somber hangover of the terrorist attacks, students across the country were asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at exactly 11 a.m. Tuesday.

While some schools were unaware of the second annual pledge drill, students at places like George S. Patton Elementary in Garden Grove had prepared for the event and Tuesday followed the lead of President Bush, who marked the occasion by saluting the flag at the East Literature Magnet School in Nashville.

"It was fun to sing together," said Sarah Zito, 11, one of nearly 1,000 students who gathered with Principal Barb Gibbons to recite the pledge and, with a prompt from a tape player, sing the national anthem.

"It wasn't as uptight as the ceremony we did for Sept. 11 last week," Sarah said. "It was a little more relaxed. I'm relieved."

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige urged students to participate in the second annual Pledge Across America but left the final decision with principals. Some chose not to mark the moment while others weren't even aware the patriotic event had rolled around again.

Seen as a way of channeling the roiling emotions of students in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the synchronized pledge was first held last Oct. 12. It fulfilled the dream of Villa Park resident Paula Burton, who 10 years earlier began a campaign for a nationally coordinated pledge as a vow of unity.

This year, Delaine Eastin, state superintendent for public instruction, sent notices to school administrators in support of the ceremony but emphasized that the patriotic drill was voluntary. Also, the pledge was moved forward to Sept. 17--Constitution Day.

"It's another way for educators to talk about American ideals, such as freedom and citizenship and the words of the Pledge of Allegiance," said Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Winger said the national pledge had nothing to do with the legal battle over the phrase "under God" in the oath. In June, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the phrase unconstitutional.

California public schools are required to conduct daily appropriate patriotic exercises, and the pledge is one way, Eastin's letter noted. Still, she urged caution among educators and school employees to heed the religious and personal beliefs of students who might not want to participate.

At Oxnard Street Elementary School in North Hollywood, all 750 students recited the oath together, but 50 minutes after the official start time. Although the school felt compelled to participate in the national pledge, reading lessons came first.

Some educators say the event is a chance to bring up challenging topics.

"It's fine to say the pledge in a synchronized fashion, but teachers should use the event as a springboard into a discussion about its meaning," said Chuck Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education. "What's the meaning of 'liberty and justice for all'? Should we have a pledge?"

For Kaya Vyas, the Pledge Across America was unquestionably a vow of unity for youths.

"We've always been separated by grade level during these school assemblies," said Kaya, 11. "This is the first time our whole school has really come together to celebrate patriotism and togetherness. I'm still in awe from it."

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Times staff writer Stephanie Stassel contributed to this report.

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