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After widespread backlash, Fargo School Board votes to reinstate Pledge of Allegiance at meetings

Before the vote, several members of the Fargo School Board mentioned they had received a storm of hateful calls and emails, some of them threatening, as well as calls of support.

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Fargo School Board President Dr. Tracie Newman talks to school board members on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, at a special meeting to decide whether to reinstate the Pledge of Allegiance at board meetings. The board voted 8-1 to resume reciting the pledge.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum
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FARGO — At a special meeting held Thursday, Aug. 18, the Fargo School Board voted 8-1 to resume reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of board meetings.

The change was prompted by public outcry that followed a decision by the board on Aug. 9 to stop reciting the pledge.

Board President Tracie Newman called for Thursday's meeting and recommended the board reinstate the pledge after the widespread backlash.

Prior to the vote, several board members mentioned they had received a storm of hateful calls and emails from people all over the country, some of them threatening, since the decision last week.

Board member Nyamal Dei, who cast the lone "no" vote at Thursday's meeting, shared a voicemail recording in front of the board. The recording contained vulgar, hateful and racist language throughout.

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Fargo School Board member Nyamal Dei shares comments on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, about the backlash that has been received about whether the board should recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Dei cast the lone "no" vote Thursday.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

Dei, who was the first Black woman elected to the school board during an election in June, said she has always maintained that people should stand up for what they believe in.

"Hate has no place in this community, it does not make a strong Democracy," she said.

Dei later took a long pause before casting her no vote.

Board member Katie Christensen, who attended the meeting by phone, said she had been called disgusting things and received threats after last week's board meeting.

She said she had reported some of the threatening messages to the police.

A number of board members said they reluctantly voted to resume reciting the pledge in order to help the district regain its focus and mission of educating students.

Board member Seth Holden, who sought to rescind the original motion and remove the pledge, said he was disappointed and embarrassed by much of the public reaction to the board's Aug. 9 decision, stating he believed misinformation was to blame for much of the vitriol.

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Vice President of the Fargo School Board Seth Holden talks about whether the board should reinstate the Pledge of Allegiance at board meetings on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022. Holden voted in favor of reinstating the pledge.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

Calling the situation heartbreaking, Holden said there is a war being waged against public education, and he's worried the board's decision Thursday to change its stand on reciting the pledge could be viewed as a form of surrender.

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Board member Greg Clark said a vast majority of the negative and hateful messages he had received came from outside of the Fargo area.

"While this past week, I've been threatened with violence....my belief in the goodness of Fargo citizens has not been shaken," Clark said, adding that 43% of the reaction he received from Fargo residents was in favor of the board's decision to stop reciting the pledge.

In earlier discussions, board members stated the inclusion in the pledge of a reference to God could be viewed by some as a sign the district was not sensitive or welcoming to the beliefs of all members of the community.

The board's decision last week was the apparent motivation behind an announcement made Monday, Aug. 15 by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum , who said he planned to craft, along with several state legislators, a law that would ensure public school students and elected officials across the state would be given the opportunity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

The idea to begin reciting the pledge was initiated earlier this year by then-board member David Paulson, who lost a bid for re-election in June.

At a March 22 meeting, the board decided to begin reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of board meetings. For much of the spring and summer, the board began its meetings with the pledge, though not all board members participated .

In the Aug. 9 vote, Newman voted to stop reciting the pledge, along with board members Jim Johnson, Seth Holden, Katie Christensen, Melissa Burkland, Greg Clark and Nyamal Dei. Board members Robin Nelson and Nikkie Gullickson opposed the move.

The decision prompted heavy criticism , according to a memo Newman wrote in connection with setting up Thursday's special meeting.

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Dr. Tracie Newman, President of the Fargo School Board, speaks at the start of a special meeting on whether the board should resume reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

"Since the August 9 board meeting, board members and the district have received significant negative local and national feedback," Newman's memo said. "Further, a considerable amount of misinformation has been shared about the action and its reach into procedures in our schools."

Newman said the board's action on Aug. 9 did not affect the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in school buildings by students and staff, nor did it change the recitation of the pledge to remove the words “under God.”

"The action taken at the meeting was not to negate the board’s support of patriotism, the love of one’s country or support of the flag of the United States," Newman's memo said.

She added, however, that the amount of feedback has made it clear that trying to correct public impressions will divert even more time and resources away from preparing for the upcoming school year.

No public comment was allowed at Thursday's special meeting, but about two dozen people were present in the audience.

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Attendees of the special Fargo School Board meeting listen closely to discussion about whether the board should reinstate the Pledge of Allegiance on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

Jeff Sakellson, who lives about a block from the school district headquarters, said he believes the Pledge of Allegiance "kinda unites the whole country, don't it? It keeps America as one, united."

Sakellson added that he feels the word "God" belongs in the pledge.

"Our whole country is based on the word of God. It's even on our money supply," he said.

Deven Styczynski, a frequent observer of school board meetings and a recent unsuccessful candidate for the board, said he attended Thursday's meeting because he was "interested to see what it takes to push the board's directions."

Christensen said she wished those who were so angered by the board's earlier decision regarding the pledge could feel equally outraged over other issues, such as how much teachers get paid.

She added she hoped Thursday's decision would allow the district to get back to doing its job of educating students without the turmoil caused by the pledge controversy.

"We are here to do what's best for our district," Christensen said.

Reporter Melissa Van Der Stad contributed to this report.

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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