HUNTINGTON — Student protests at Spring Valley High School disrupted Wednesday morning classes after swirling social media rumors that the administration had, among other claims, intentionally omitted the phrase “One nation, under God,” from the daily Pledge of Allegiance and disciplined students for religious expression in school.
Principal Tammy Forbush called the social media claims “absolute lies,” clarifying no student has been, nor will they ever be, disciplined for practicing or expressing their faith in school. The situation had spiraled from what she said was her own innocuous mistake while reciting the Pledge on Tuesday morning. Forbush said she forgot the phrase “And to the Republic, for which it stands” — not “One nation, under God.”
“None of those things happened,” Forbush said. “Unfortunately, students completely believe their peers or social media.”
Allegations included claims the administration had suspended a student for reading a Bible, had made a student change a shirt with a religious slogan, and had removed all American flags from the school, all of which Forbush said are not true.
“In fact, one parent was in the office complaining about the removal of flags, and that parent had walked past the flag on the large pole, and there are two in the office,” Forbush said, with at all three American flags visible in the school’s main office. “They were never removed; it didn’t happen.”
The allegations sparked a student protest Wednesday morning as about 50 students staged a sit-in in the school’s commons area, outside the main office, rather than going to class at the morning bell, asking for the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited in its entirety.
Forbush said students first refused to move for administrators and guidance counselors before a Wayne County Sheriff’s deputy, who regularly patrols the area, coerced them into moving to the auditorium, as the commons area is needed for students to change classes. Those remaining in the auditorium were disciplined, though Forbush would not say how many were suspended.
“They’re sincere in their belief, but unfortunately when they crossed the line is when they refused to leave the commons area and go to homeroom,” Forbush said. “At no point was anybody, or will anybody, be suspended for saying 'God,' reading their Bible, having a Bible out, or anything like that.
"The line was crossed when they refused to go to homeroom and then additionally when they refused to go to the auditorium. It has zero to do with God, religion, flags, respect.”
Forbush recited the Pledge of Allegiance in its entirety Wednesday morning.
Students across the school remained in their homerooms for about two hours while the incident unfolded, sparking more social media claims that the school had been placed on lockdown.
Forbush said the students’ convictions to stand for their beliefs came from the heart, but were generated by unsubstantiated claims read online.
“They truly believe it. They’re sincere. I don’t believe they’re being vicious, I think they’re being sincere,” she said. “Unfortunately they’re misinformed. They truly believe what their friends have told them.”
Wayne County Superintendent of Schools Todd Alexander confirmed the rumors were false, calling the protest an unnecessary disruption caused by students jumping to conclusions.
There is no resistance to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at Spring Valley, Alexander said, as is required of schools by law in West Virginia.
Student Collin Smith admitted he didn’t know if the rumors were true or not, but dressed for school in a tie-dyed shirt from church camp proclaiming Jesus Christ nonetheless.
“We have a right to represent whatever we want to represent as long as it’s not alcohol or drugs,” said Smith, a senior from Huntington. “You shouldn’t have to suppress yourself, especially when it comes to religion.”
Smith said he was awaiting more solid evidence before drawing a conclusion. Spring Valley had experienced protests once during his freshman year three years prior when students opted not to participate in the then-new Smarter Balanced state testing.
“But it wasn’t anything like this. This is completely different,” Smith said. “There’s (rumors) going from ‘She’s being anti-religion’ to ‘anti-American flag’ to all kinds of stuff.
"You don’t know what’s true and what’s not.”
Passing through the commons area before school, Holt Albright saw the protesting students refusing to budge from their cafeteria tables, some shouting at administrators. The senior from Huntington returned to homeroom where the rumors continued, but said he didn’t believe the claims, noting the situation had been blown out of proportion.
“Very much so,” Albright said. “In today’s politically correct society, I’ve found that anyone who has a grievance will protest.”
Spring Valley will operate on a regular schedule Thursday.
Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.