No one is sure when daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance fell by the wayside at Woodbury Elementary School.
But efforts to restore them have erupted into a bitter dispute in this town of about 800 residents, with school officials blocking the exercise from classrooms over concerns that it holds children who don't participate up to scorn.
U.S. schoolchildren have long been able to opt out of reciting the pledge for religious reasons. But unlike other pledge controversies, this one centers on how and where schoolchildren say it, not whether they should.
“The whole thing is tearing our community apart,” said Heather Lanphear, 39, the mother of a first-grader and an opponent of reciting the pledge in the classroom.
The brouhaha in the Vermont school began in September, when parent Ted Tedesco began circulating petitions calling for the return of daily pledge recitations in the 19th-century schoolhouse, which has 55 children in kindergarten through sixth grade.
School officials agreed to resume it as a daily exercise, but not in the classroom.
“We don't want to isolate children every day in their own classroom or make them feel they're different,” said Principal Michaela Martin.
Instead, starting last week, a sixth-grade student was assigned to go around to the four classrooms before classes started, gathering anyone who wanted to say it, then walking them up creaky wooden steps to a second-floor gymnasium, where he led them in the pledge.
About half the students chose to participate, Martin said.
Tedesco, 55, a retired Marine Corps major, and others who signed his petitions didn't like that solution, calling it disruptive and inappropriate because it put young children in the position of having to decide between pre-class play and the pledge.
Martin and school board chairwoman Retta Dunlap defended the practice, saying it restored the pledge to the school as requested, preserved the rights of students who – for political or religious reasons – didn't want to participate, and gave others the opportunity to pledge their allegiance.