A Westhampton Beach school official issued a call for unity Friday, saying the district "does not tolerate racism, cyberbullying or unkind words or actions" after some students reacted to a video posted on the TikTok app showing a fellow classmate who sat for the Pledge of Allegiance in protest.
The short clip on the video-sharing app caused enough of an uproar that Superintendent Michael Radday reminded the school community that others have the right to protest. The clip shows the Westhampton Beach High School student, who is Black, on her computer during the pledge.
Radday said that "although we might not always agree with others’ viewpoints, we need to respect individuals, their differences, and their freedom of expression," Radday said in the statement.
The student's silent protest drew "mixed reactions" from some members of the school community, according to the district. The statement did not name the student, and the student's father declined to comment when reached by Newsday on Friday.
Radday also said that "additionally, concerns about racism and racial bias within our school community have also been brought to our attention."
Dr. Alexis Gersten, a parent who lives in East Quogue, said she saw comments harassing and bullying the student online and noted the district should have followed procedure on how to handle such behavior. Gersten has a son who is a freshman in the school.
"I saw her video and I read some of the comments that were posted," said Gersten, a dentist.
"This isn’t a matter of everyone expressing themselves in different ways. She made a choice to sit during the pledge, and she had a right to do this. She is also supposed to be protected from bullying and harassment from other students whether they harass and bully her in school or online," Gersten added.
The district did not say why the student decided not to stand for the pledge.
The country has seen widespread protests in the last year, with the rise of a Black Lives Matter movement in response to the death of George Floyd, a Black man, after Derek Chauvin, a white man who was then a Minneapolis police officer, held his knee on Floyd's neck during an arrest.
Members of the Asian American community in the region and nationally also have grown increasingly alarmed over incidents of anti-Asian bias stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
Radday said his district teaches "our students the value of diversity and respect for all. Any student found to be in violation of our code of conduct will be subject to consequences and disciplinary actions."
He also said students have the right to express themselves and should be able to do so without judgment.
"We must engage in difficult conversations and uncomfortable experiences to move forward as a community and country. We must live by the golden rule: to treat people the way we want to be treated," Radday's statement said. "Moving forward, we should all challenge ourselves to be better every day. Every day is a chance to be better than the day before. We can meet this challenge as we have met so many others, and we will do it together, as a Westhampton Beach family."