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9th grader sues school district after staffer allegedly ‘physically assaulted’ her when she didn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance


(LEXINGTON, S.C.) — The family of a 15-year-old Black honor student is suing her South Carolina school district, alleging she was assaulted by a school staffer who she said was upset she hadn’t stopped to acknowledge the Pledge of Allegiance.

Lawyers for the family of Marissa Barnwell, a student at River Bluff High School in Lexington, said in a federal lawsuit that on Nov. 29, 2022, Barnwell “decided to exercise her First Amendment Right to refrain from acknowledging the Pledging Allegiance in a non-disruptive manner” when an instructional assistant “physically assaulted” Marissa before taking her to the principal’s office for punishment.

The staffer, along with the school’s principal, the superintendent and the South Carolina Department of Education are also listed as defendants in the lawsuit.

Barnwell’s family attorney, Tyler Bailey, has called for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson to open a criminal investigation into the incident, saying that the Lexington Police Department has refused to file charges against the staff member who allegedly assaulted Marissa.

“I am respectfully requesting that you use the authority of your office to help restore what little bit of faith the Barnwell family may have left that the word all referenced in the phrase ‘Liberty and Justice for All’ may actually include a 15-year-old Black girl in Lexington, South Carolina, who decided to use her voice to push America to the ideals she hopes to stand for,” Bailey wrote in his letter to the state’s attorney general.

ABC News has reached out to the attorney general’s office.

Marissa and her parents Fynale and Shavell Barnwell, held a press conference on Thursday to discuss the lawsuit.

Fynale Barnwell, Marissa’s mother, said at Thursday’s press conference that her daughter called her in tears claiming that the staffer attacked her.

According to the federal lawsuit, Marissa silently walked to her class while the Pledge of Allegiance was playing on the school’s intercom when she said the staffer pushed her to the wall and “forcefully” touched her to make her comply with saying the pledge.

ABC News obtained school surveillance video that appears to show an interaction between Marissa and the staffer in a school hallway. According to the lawsuit, Marissa alleges that the principal sent Marissa back to class telling her that he would review the surveillance video footage of the alleged incident.

The lawsuit alleges that the staffer deprived Marissa of her constitutional rights and caused physical pain and emotional distress, resulting in medical bills and an inability to enjoy her life.

According to South Carolina law, the Pledge of Allegiance must be said every day at school, but those who choose not to recite it cannot be punished for not participating.

“A person who does not wish to participate may leave the classroom, may remain in his seat, or may express his non-participation in any form which does not materially infringe upon the rights of other persons or disrupt school activities,” the law states.

At Thursday’s press conference, Marissa said that she hadn’t recited the Pledge of Allegiance since the third grade after she questioned if the U.S. was living up to its promise of ensuring “liberty and justice” for all its citizens.

“The fact that this [person] attacked me and disrespected me completely just because of that. No one should ever go through that,” Marissa said. “No one should have to be in school every day and have to face this [person] and have to face the same administration that let this happen.”

“What Marissa wants is for the powers that be to do everything in their power to try to make this right and really get some accountability and justice that she deserves, not just for herself, but for others as well,” Bailey told ABC News.

In a statement to ABC News, Lexington School District One’s chief communication officer Elizabeth “Libby” D. Roof said that the attorney representing the district is in the process of responding to the Barnwells’ lawsuit and that it will be filed in the coming weeks.

According to the family’s attorney, Lexington Police Department said they reviewed the surveillance video and decided not to pursue a case. The department did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

ABC News’ Will McDuffie contributed to this report.

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