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Upstate N.Y. School Apologizes For Reciting Pledge Of Allegiance In Arabic

UPDATED 03/20/15 12:47 a.m.

PINE BUSH, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- A school in upstate New York has apologized for reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic after getting complaints from district residents who lost family members in the war in Afghanistan.

The pledge was read in Arabic during Wednesday morning announcements at Pine Bush High School, located 65 miles northwest of New York City.

Some students were angered and responded with catcalls. District Superintendent Joan Carbone told the Times Herald-Record of Middletown that she received complaints from residents who lost relatives in Afghanistan and from Jewish parents.

The Arabic reading of the pledge has "divided the school in half,'' Carbone told the newspaper.

"I was just like 'are you kidding me?' That's so disrespectful," Pine Bush resident Brandon Taylor told CBS2's Lou Young.

"Judging (from) what the country is dealing with now with extreme Muslims and all the war and stuff over there, I wouldn't have started off with Arabic," resident William Steiger added.

To many, the Arabic Pledge of Allegiance seemed "un-American." Patriotism, for them, is a narrow highway.

"I think it should be spoken in English. This is America," resident Joyce Larsen said.

The district said the school's foreign language department arranged to have the pledge recited in different languages for National Foreign Language Week, which was last week.

Andrew Zink, the senior class president, usually gives the morning announcements and recites the pledge. He said he allowed an Arabic-speaking student to handle the pledge duties Wednesday.

"The intention was to promote the fact that those who speak a language other than English still pledge to salute this great country,'' the district said in its statement.

"Had it been done in Spanish first or Japanese first, we wouldn't be having this conversation today," Principal Aaron Hopmayer told Young.

The principal made a building-wide announcement Wednesday afternoon to explain the reading's context and apologize to students who took offense to it being recited in Arabic. In a statement posted on the district's website, officials said they apologized "to any students, staff or community members who found this activity disrespectful.''

"We understand that other community members may have found this to be disrespectful and that wasn't our intent," Carbone told Young.

As CBS2's Matt Kozar reported, administrators appeared conflicted.

"I don't think we're going to apologize. I think what we're saying is that this district accepts and appreciates diversity and at the end of the day it's a teachable moment," Hopmayer said.

Carbone said the pledge will be read in English only from now on, as is directed in state Department of Education regulations.

However, New York State Education Department spokesman Dennis Tompkins issued a statement to CBS2 that said, "State regulation specifies the wording of the Pledge, not the language."

Some locals told Young they actually found the district's apology offensive.

"They wouldn't have to apologize to me or my family for that," New Windsor resident Patrick Brown said.

"It doesn't bother me that they did it. Everybody should be welcome. Everybody should be free," Pine Bush resident Joel Heir added.

At an American Legion meeting on Thursday night, Benjamin Weiss was the only person who supported saying the pledge in another language.

"I thought it was relatively harmless and a good idea," Weiss said.

Veterans said it's not about a hatred of Arabic or Islam.

They say a pledge of allegiance in Spanish, French, or Italian isn't appropriate either.

"Only in English," Vietnam veteran, Andrew Brew said.

The commander of the local American Legion post said he had a face to face meeting with the superintendent and received a promise that from now on, the pledge of allegiance will be said only in English in schools throughout the district.

The Pine Bush district spreads across rural parts of Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties. Its total enrollment is about 5,500 students.

In 2013, the parents of several Jewish students attending Pine Bush elementary and middle schools said their children were the targets of anti-Semitic harassment from classmates. The families filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, claiming district officials turned a blind eye to the behavior. In November, a federal judge in White Plains ruled the case could go forward.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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