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Schools crucial in keeping patriotism, flag etiquette alive among nation's youth

| Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 9:22 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Alexis Gabriel, 13, Anthony Bonifate, 13, and Jordan Zottola, 12, place American flags on the graves of veterans in Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville. They were among about 30 students from St. Rafael's Elementary School in Morningside who placed more than 600 flags throughout the cemetery.
Seneca Valley High School JROTC sophomores Pfc. Elissa McKay, 15, of Evans City and 1st Lt. Mickaila Bartlett of Harmony take down the flag outside the school after dismissal.
Seneca Valley High School sophomore JROTC members 1st Lt. Mickaila Bartlett, 16, of Harmony and PFC Elissa McKay, 15,of Evans City take down and fold the American flag outside the school.
JROTC members PFC Elissa McKay, 15, of Evans City and 1st Lt. Mickaila Bartlett, 16, of Harmony take down the flag outside Seneca Valley High School.
Seneca Valley High School sophomores 1st Lt. Mickaila Bartlett, 16, of Harmony and PFC Elissa McKay, 15, of Evans City take down the flag outside the school at dismissal. The two are junior ROTC members who are in charge of putting up and taking down the flag each day.

They stand in height order with their right hands pressed firmly over their hearts, left arms tucked behind their backs, and stare at the American flag.

When the three-time PIAA class AAAA Mt. Lebanon girls' high school basketball team lines up for the National Anthem before each game, there's no slouching, moving or talking.

“We honor the flag, the country and veterans by being respectful,” said head coach Dori Oldaker, who instated the protocol at Mt. Lebanon during the 2009-2010 season when an assistant coach's husband deployed to Iraq. “It should be the norm, as opposed to the exception.”

Without studies to measure patriotism among the nation's youths, scout leaders, veterans and educators said it's unclear whether such respect for flag and country is increasing or waning.

Romel Nicholas, chairman of the Pittsburgh-based National Flag Foundation, is among the many critical voices who say schools aren't doing enough to teach children respect for the flag.

“We firmly believe there's a major void,” said Nicholas, a partner at the Downtown law firm of Gaitens, Tucceri & Nicholas.

The National Flag Foundation will roll out in the next 24 months a series of 45-second commercials featuring sportscaster Jim Nantz promoting respect for the flag.

“Our theme underlying this is education,” Nicholas said.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington, believes fewer schools teach students about proper flag etiquette and respect.“Just look around the country and you'll see fewer school districts today teaching that than there were just a few years ago,” Davis said. “If kids aren't learning it in schools, where are they going to learn it?”

Mike Surbaugh, scout executive for the Boy Scouts of America's Laurel Highlands Council covering Western Pennsylvania, including Allegheny, Beaver, Washington and parts of Armstrong and Westmoreland counties, said flag ceremonies in Cub Scouts usually are the first time boys in first through fifth grades learn to properly fold and display the American flag.

“That's something that's not being replicated in a lot of other places,” Surbaugh said.

In Jackson, Butler County, veterans place American flag decals on the helmets of the members of the Seneca Valley football team before the team's first home game each season, a tradition started in 2011 by coach Don Holl, a Naval Academy graduate who served seven years as an officer in the Navy.

“I've had friends and classmates who gave the ultimate sacrifice. My father-in-law is a retired Marine colonel and many of the people I grew up with were military people,” Holl said. “I don't think there's a way you could ever say thanks enough to those guys.”

Members of the 911th Airlift Wing in Moon surprised a sixth-grader at Highlands Middle School in Natrona Heights on Tuesday because of the support she showed them before they deployed last year.

Sarah Young, 12, made more than 800 rosaries to give to members of the 911th, said her mother, Jolynn Young of Brackenridge.

“She feels that the folks in the military do an awful lot for us, and it's the least she can do to give back,” Young said.

Sarah performed additional chores around the house to earn extra money to pay for the rosaries, which cost about a $1 apiece, her mother said.

“I am completely blown away, not only by her drive to support the military personnel but the amount of attention to what she has been doing has been receiving,” she said.

Capt. Shawn Walleck, a 911th spokesman, called Sarah “probably the most dynamic young person” he has met.

“You just don't see that these days, in the world of iPods and the Internet. Most kids are sitting at home watching TV or texting. This girl is out there making a difference,” Walleck said.

In Pittsburgh, teachers at St. Rafael Elementary School in Morningside immerse students before and after Memorial Day, said Robert Munz, the school's principal.

Last week, members of the VFW in Lawrenceville and the American Legion in Sharpsburg spoke to students about what it means to be a veteran and on Friday, the school's 33 seventh- and eighth-grade students placed American flags at the graves of veterans in Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville.

“We teach the students that these final resting places need to be treated with honor and respect,” Munz said. “Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or

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