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2 bills push student loyalty

Two Republican lawmakers are taking slightly different tacks in their efforts to affirm Arizona students’ loyalty to their country.

One wants mandatory compliance. The other started out with the same idea, but has since had a change of heart.

A freshman Republican lawmaker who sponsored a bill making a “constitutional oath” a requirement for high school graduation said he’ll amend the legislation so that the oath is no longer mandatory.

Meanwhile, another legislator wants to change the law so that the Pledge of Allegiance is no longer optional for students of all ages.

Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, said HB2467, which would require students to take an oath before graduating from high school, was a well-intentioned attempt to get teenagers interested in the U.S. Constitution. But he said as he talked to lawmakers and others, including people who have served in the military, he had second thoughts and now believes that making the oath compulsory would be bad idea.

The oath, which is nearly identical to the one taken by commissioned officers in the U.S. military, reads, “I … do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge these duties; so help me God.”

The text of the bill, as it is currently written, states that a teacher must verify in writing that a student has recited the oath before he or she is allowed to graduate from a public high school.

But Thorpe said he doesn’t want students to feel “browbeaten” into doing something they may not want to do.

“Most people felt that making it optional would probably be a better approach. I certainly don’t want to create something onerous that either a student or their parents might feel is over-the-top,” Thorpe said. “Certainly my first approach was well-intentioned, but … as I thought about it more and got feedback from folks, I think making it optional certainly makes more sense.”

Instead, Thorpe said he’ll amend the bill in committee to create an optional oath that students could take, possibly in a government class. He said his goal was to get students interested in the Constitution, to think about what means and understand why it is important.

Thorpe said an optional pledge will still give students an opportunity to do that, but without the “negative component” that a compulsory pledge would have.

“I want a student to come away with a feeling that they’ve done something kind of noble, something part of the American experience of what makes our nation unique,” he said. “I have taught the Constitution and I am a student of the Constitution. And so I certainly would love to see students have kind of the same level of respect for the Constitution that I have.”

Thorpe chalked up the original draft of HB2467 to his rush to file the bill and his newness to the job.

“As a new legislator, it’s a bit of a learning process for me,” he said.

Rep. Steve Smith’s HB2284 would amend current law, which says only that school districts must set aside a specific time each day for students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance if they want to. Smith’s bill would eliminate a section of the law that says time must be set aside “for those students who wish” to recite the pledge, effectively making it mandatory for students in grades one through 12.

Students would be exempted from the requirement only at the request of their parents. Smith compared it to way parents can request that their children be exempted from sex education classes.

Smith, R-Maricopa, said the genesis of the bill was an alleged incident in 2012 in which a Maricopa High School student was mocked and bullied by classmates and her teacher after she was the only student in her class to stand up to recite the pledge.

But while that alleged incident was the genesis of Smith’s bill, he said it’s not the main reason he’s running it. Smith said he simply believes students should recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and it’s a good thing for as many as possible to do so.

“We don’t give kids choices. We tell them what to do in school,” Smith said. “Do I think that the kids should say the Pledge of Allegiance at school? Heck yes, I do.”

House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, questioned the need for Smith’s bill.

“We should be focused on actually helping kids learn right now,” Campbell said. “This is just all stuff that’s irrelevant to whether our kids are getting the education they actually need.”

Smith said he didn’t include any penalties in HB2284 because that should be left to each individual school district. He said he doubted any districts would actually implement penalties such as suspensions or lower grades for students who refused to say the pledge, and expected most to simply notify parents, who would decide if they wanted to discipline their children.

If districts create an unreasonable penalty, he said they’ll have to answer to their school boards and parents.

“You don’t think there would be an uproar from the local community, and from that kid’s parents, and from the teachers and other administrators in the school, and all the parents of that district? Of course there would be,” Smith said. “If the school adopts a ridiculous policy, you let the people accept it or deny it. The last time I checked, the school board is there for a reason.”

The mocking and bullying incident that Smith said inspired the bill, however, is disputed. In a March press statement, Maricopa Unified School District Deputy Superintendent Ember Conley said a four-day investigation “yielded no evidence corroborating the accusation.” Conley wrote that the student’s parents would not allow her to be interviewed for the investigation, and that the father said his daughter defended the teacher.

HB2467 has been assigned to the House Education and the Federalism and Fiscal Responsibility committees. Being double-assigned to committees is usually a bad sign for legislation. Smith’s HB2284 has not yet been assigned to a committee.

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