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Teen sues SC school district after teacher assaults her for not saying Pledge
"I was completely and utterly disrespected," said 15-year-old Marissa Barnwell
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A teenage girl from South Carolina is suing her school district, claiming she was physically assaulted by a teacher for not saying the Pledge of Allegiance. The federal lawsuit was filed on February 13, but the family and their lawyer have now gone public with the story.
According to the lawsuit, 15-year-old freshman Marissa Barnwell, a Black girl who’s an honor roll student at River Bluff High School, was walking to class on November 29, 2022 (her birthday, coincidentally) when the Pledge began playing over the school’s intercom.
South Carolina requires schools to say the Pledge, but the law specifically says students don’t have to participate and that they “may not be penalized for failing to participate.” They can leave the classroom or remain silent and seated.
Marissa wasn’t even in a classroom so it shouldn’t have been an issue at all that she kept walking when the Pledge came over the loudspeakers. Other students were walking, too, she said, but she was the only one singled out by Nicole Livingston, a special education teacher:
While [Marissa], was walking to her class, Defendant Nicole Livingston violated [Marissa’s] constitutional rights by yelling and demanding that [Marissa] stop walking and physically assaulting her by pushing [Marissa], on the wall and forcefully touching [Marissa], in an unwanted way without her consent so that she would stop walking in recognition of the Pledge of Allegiance and Moment of Silence that was announced at the conclusion of the Pledge.
Livingston then took Marissa to the principal’s office. Principal Jacob Smith said he would “review video footage” but never pointed out that Marissa’s actions were legal. He just offered her some food and sent her back to class. If he reviewed the footage, whatever he discovered hasn’t been made public. The parents weren’t even given a courtesy phone call by school officials—not at the time and not since then.
During a press conference on Thursday, Marissa alluded to that video, saying it confirmed her side of the story:
“I was just in disbelief,” Barnwell said. “You can hear me say in the video, ‘Get your hands off of me.’”
“I was completely and utterly disrespected,” Barnwell said at a news conference Thursday. “No one has apologized, no one has acknowledged my hurt. ... The fact that the school is defending that kind of behavior is [unimaginable].”
A brief clip of the video is seen at The State’s website. While audio cannot be heard, you can see Livingston confronting Marissa in a way that seems utterly unnecessary if the allegations are accurate and this was all about her not saying the Pledge.
Marissa’s parents, Fynale and Shavell Barnwell, got a call from their daughter shortly after the incident, when she was tearing up from what had just transpired. They were shocked to learn what happened and, since that time, they’ve been demanding some measure of accountability from the school. That accountability never came, creating an “unreasonable risk of harm to students.” Livingston is still employed there and there’s no indication she was punished in any meaningful way.
That’s why the Barnwells are now filing this lawsuit as a last resort:
… Defendants Lexington School District One, Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait, and Principal Jacob Smith, continued to employ and retained Nicole Livingston, took no measures to ensure that she was not allowed to assault students or continue to force, demand, coerce, or attempt to force, coerce, or demand students into reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or engaging in conduct that she seems fit during the moment of silence, nor did they take any measures to ensure the safety, security, and constitutional rights of students wishing to exercise their First Amendment rights during the Pledge of Allegiance, including Plaintiff.
This isn’t merely about protecting Marissa’s right not to say the Pledge; this is about protecting students from the adults who are supposed to look out for them.
There’s also the racial element to consider. River Bluff is a school where 73% of students are white, and Marissa believes she was singled out (despite not being the only student walking during the Pledge) because she’s Black. She said during the press conference that her Black friends had experienced similar feelings of racism over the years, though none that involved a teaching physically attacking them.
In addition to suing the district and its leaders for being “negligent, careless, reckless, and grossly negligent,” the family says the district violated Marissa’s civil rights under the Fourteenth Amendment (due process and equal protection) and the First Amendment (free speech). They are seeking actual, incidental, consequential and punitive damages of whatever amount a court deems fit along with legal fees.
The school has yet to publicly respond to the lawsuit. But Congressman Jared Huffman, who’s openly Humanist, weighed in on the story:
Also, while the reason Marissa doesn’t say the Pledge isn’t relevant to the lawsuit, she justified it during the press conference, saying she stopped reciting it in third grade. She recognized that we don’t actually have “liberty and justice for all” in the country and didn’t want to recite any pledge that suggests otherwise.
Incidentally, Marissa’s story reminds me of a similar one from 1916, when an 11-year-old Black child named Hubert Eaves refused to say the Pledge for essentially the same reason:
… Isn't it wrong to have me bowing and worshipping a flag that is a dirty flag; one that does not give my mother and father protection; a flag that represents a government that allows 'Jim Crow' cars, segregation in all public places in the South and other parts of the country; denies us a voice in state government and who practices Grandfather clauses and lets mobs take our people out and hang them without trial; show us no mercy in the courts, deny us the proper school education, disfranchises our people. winks an eye at Southern concubinage, ostracizes us in every way.
Eaves was arrested for his act of defiance. In that sense, not much has changed when it comes to these faux-patriotic rituals.