In keeping with tradition, the graduation ceremony at Glenbard South High School last weekend began with the principal welcoming families and a presentation of the American flag on the stage.
But what happened in the next 15 seconds led to an apology from that Glen Ellyn school’s principal and the district superintendent acknowledging an “unfortunate and grave error.”
Principal Sandra Coughlin led the gathering in the Pledge of Allegiance, but she didn’t recite the phrases “of the United States of America” and “under God.”
Coughlin has since apologized, saying she made a “horrific mistake by accidentally omitting” key clauses of the pledge. Though she didn’t appear to stumble over her words, Coughlin explained how she was swept up in the moment in her final commencement ceremony before retirement.
“As I stood at the podium before my last graduation as principal, I found myself more emotional and anxious than expected,” Coughlin said in a video message released by Glenbard High School District 87.
“As I began, I checked the color guard. I lost my place, and I accidentally omitted key phrases. After 30 years in education, and countless times reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I lost track and fumbled the speech.”
The flub drew attention from a conservative group online that circulated a clip of Coughlin giving the pledge, while an atheist blogger and a former teacher from Naperville came to her defense.
“While I can justify removing the ‘Under God’ bit, I’m not sure why you would omit the country’s name ... especially after a line about pledging allegiance ‘to the flag,’” Hemant Mehta wrote in his Friendly Atheist blog.
The phrase “under God,” added to the pledge in 1954, has sparked legal challenges. But Mehta said he’s never heard of anyone removing the phrase “United States of America” in protest. And if it was a protest, Mehta said, the principal would have said something about it, signaling to him that “she’s not doing this on purpose.”
“My heart goes out to her because she didn’t do anything wrong,” he said Tuesday.
Coughlin said she wasn’t making a political statement and that she has no political agenda “as some have suggested.”
“I would never intentionally disrespect our great country, our flag, nor the men and women who have done so much to protect and defend our freedom,” she said.
A district spokeswoman said Coughlin wasn’t available for an interview Tuesday. But in an emailed response provided by the spokeswoman, Coughlin said it was later in the weekend that she realized she accidentally omitted portions of the pledge.
“When I realized it, I was mortified that I made such a mistake,” Coughlin said. “I sincerely apologize to our graduates, families, public and the color guard.”
On Monday, Superintendent David Larson, who was standing beside Coughlin at the ceremony, issued a districtwide message to families.
“Mrs. Coughlin, as a long-standing District 87 principal, has great respect for our country, our flag and all that it stands for,” he wrote. “Please accept our apologies for this unfortunate and grave error.”
Coughlin said no one said anything about the mistake to her at the ceremony. However, in the days since, Coughlin said “people have been very kind in extending grace and understanding.”
“Many said they recognize that we all make mistakes.”