A 15-year-old sophomore at the Waterbury Arts Magnet School claims in a First Amendment lawsuit that her teacher mocked and shamed her when she would not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
In the federal lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut in Bridgeport, the girl, identified as N.F., also said Italian language teacher Ralph Belvedere falsely accused her of not doing her classwork and, on one occasion, brought another teacher in the classroom to lecture students who had not stood for the pledge on their supposed lack of patriotism.
The complaint says the four nonwhite students in the class did not stand as a “silent expression of their beliefs” while all the white students stood.
There were several incidents of not standing for the pledge, including the last one on Oct. 3, in which the lawsuit alleges Belvedere made the girl, who is black, feel “frightened and intimidated.” The suit seeks to have Belvedere pay punitive damages and to “deter him and others similarly situated from infringing the peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights by the plaintiff and other students in the future.”
John Williams, attorney for the girl and her mother Gina Humber, told the Connecticut Law Tribune Wednesday that Belvedere lost an opportunity to have a meaningful exchange with his class.
“The teacher could have done one of two things,” said Williams, a New Haven-based solo practitioner. “He could have simply ignored the students who did not stand, or he could have attempted to use it as a teaching moment to help all students on both sides of the so-called divide to appreciate and respect the views of others. Instead, he verbally mocked her.”
Williams said Humber, a school administrator in New York City, “is helping her daughter feel empowered and to stand up for her own beliefs in a respectful and appropriate way.”
“The girl found this whole experience intimidating, but her mom has given her a sense of self-worth and affirmation,” he said. “The girl is confident she did the right thing and she will not be bullied.”
Alan Neigher, a semi-retired attorney who has specialized in First Amendment issues for about five decades, said “nonviolent protests are generally protected speech.”
Neigher, who has an office in Westport, said Williams’ primary obstacle is that he will have to show that the student’s behavior was not disruptive to the class.
“If the name-calling is true, he will have to show that the school officials punished the students, that they singled them out, for their passive protests,” Neigher said.
The case will be heard in front of Judge Victor Bolden.
While Williams is seeking punitive damages from Belvedere, he is seeking just $1 in damages and attorney fees from the Waterbury Board of Education, which is also a defendant in the case.
“The law is pretty straightforward, and we are not looking to break the district or enrich my client or me,” he said.
Belvedere did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, nor did Waterbury Board of Education President Elizabeth Brown or Vice President Karen Harvey.