Clovis teacher told student ‘go back to your country’ for sitting during pledge, report says

Clovis Unified School District headquarters, Sunnyside and Herndon avenues. Some community members and students say racism is a problem in the district.
Clovis Unified School District headquarters, Sunnyside and Herndon avenues. Some community members and students say racism is a problem in the district. Fresno Bee file

A Clovis East High School teacher reprimanded a student for not standing during the Pledge of Allegiance and told her “go back to your country,” according to a school incident report filed last week.

Freshman Thailia Luna said that agriculture science teacher Ken Dias took her phone after she refused to stand during the pledge on Wednesday. “He repeatedly told me I was a disgrace and continuously yelled at me across the classroom from his desk,” Luna, 14, wrote in the report obtained by The Bee. “A student began to cry and asked him to stop and he told her to shut up.”

Luna, who is Hispanic and Laotian and was born in the United States, said she refused to stand for the pledge because of race issues, mimicking NFL players who sparked controversy for kneeling during the national anthem.

“I know that racism is a big issue right now and that so many people are not being treated equally in a land of the ‘free’  ,” Luna said Monday. “We want to be the change in how the world perceives us minorities. We are not too young to want to make a difference.”

Dias was a finalist for Fresno County’s teacher of the year in 2016 and a Crystal Award winner in 2015, Clovis Unified’s highest employee award. He did not return requests for comment Monday. Clovis Unified was not open on Monday in recognition of President Lincoln’s birthday holiday.

Tiffany Trang, a senior at Clovis East, is rallying students to sit during the Pledge of Allegiance this week “to combat the issue of racism that clearly exists” throughout Clovis Unified.

“I’m shocked that (Dias) still has a job to come back to. Numerous students at my school are speaking out about this,” said Trang, 18. “It’s so infuriating to know that one of our own teachers could say this to a fellow classmate. School is supposed to be a safe environment where students can come to gain an education and escape what’s going on in the real world. Time and time again, both staff and students have gotten away without any consequences despite their very inappropriate behaviors.”

Parents have called on Clovis Unified to address reports of racism on its campuses within recent months.

Last week a mother of a Clovis East student told the school board that her son was called the N-word by another athlete, who she said was not properly punished. Last year, a leaked Snapchat conversation showed Clovis High students using racial slurs and referring to black people as their slaves.

The American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue a school district in Louisiana in 2017 that aimed to require athletes stand during the national anthem, alleging it’s unconstitutional.

“Nearly 75 years ago, the Supreme Court rightly held that state schools have no business forcing students to stand for patriotic rituals. The court also reminded public school administrators that part of their job is to train students for participation in our free society. This principle holds no less true today, and no less true on the playing field than it does in the classroom,” said the ACLU.

Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants said that students have the right to not stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. Teachers are “directed to remain neutral in their speech and behavior” while representing the district, she said.

“Out goal is the creation of a secure learning environment that allows students to fully engage in the educational process free from political or religious partiality. If a student feels compelled to opt out of the daily patriotic observance it is his/her right to do so and a staff member should not directly interfere with the student’s exercise of free speech,” Avants said in an email. “Additionally, a student would not be disciplined for peacefully electing to opt out of a patriotic observance. This type of situation is very similar to our long-standing allowances for students whose religious beliefs preclude them from participating in patriotic observances.”

Trang has been sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance in recent months, and said it’s not meant as a sign of disrespect.

“This isn’t an act of protest against the vets and the military, it’s a protest against racism. It’s our right. CUSD has encouraged us over and over again to express ourselves and carry out what we believe in, and once we do, we’re attacked,” she said. “Know that I and other students demand that CUSD do something.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays