School considers rosary a gang marker

Worth ReadingLawsuit to challenge suspension for wearing religious symbol

By Michael Carl

Officials at a New York middle school have decided a rosary could be a symbol of gang activity and have suspended a student for wearing one, but now a legal action is developing that will challenge the school's censorship.

Oneida Middle School officials say their district-wide police in the Schenectady Public School District bans any bandanas or other apparel – including beads – that can be associated with street gangs.

The result? The suspension of 13-year-old middle schooler Raymond Hosier, who chose to wear the rosary as a symbol of his faith and in honor of a deceased brother and uncle.

The American Center for Law and Justice now has confirmed officials have dispatched a letter to the school demanding the school allow the rosary, as protected by the First Amendment, or face a court challenge.

The ACLJ said the school system's dress code is too vague and that just about any clothing accessory could be labeled gang-related.

The dispute started last week when Hosier came to school wearing a rosary, and a principal ordered him to go home.

"A week ago, he was told to either remove the rosary or be sent home. The first day he was sent home. He returned back to school with the rosary, and the school district said he was suspended for two more days.

He said 'Fine, send me home,'" Jordan Sekulow of the ACLJ explained.

"Raymond goes home, the weekend comes and he came to school this week, and when he showed up with his rosary on, they said he was suspended indefinitely," Sekulow said.

Sekulow, the ACLJ's foreign affairs coordinator, said Hosier was just trying to do what he believes he should.

"You know, Raymond decided to take a stand. He's just 13 years old. He decided to take a stand and I don't think many 13-year-olds would be able to take a stand like that," Sekulow said. "He was clearly trying to do something here that his conscience was telling him to do."

"Raymond said he wasn't trying to start something, but the school officials targeted him specifically and came after him because of their policy on gang-related items including bandanas, colors, flags, and beads," Sekulow added.

Sekulow believes that if the issue goes to court as he expects, Hosier's suspension will not be the only issue that will be on trial. Sekulow believes that the district's dress code will also be on trial.

"The federal courts have been very leery of these school dress code policies that ban anything that could be related to gang imagery. If you look at their school policy, it's so broad that they go to the point where they are defining what is gang related," Sekulow added.

"In their definition, they can ban colors, flags, bandanas, and anything with beads. Let me read you the actual policy. Quoting directly, 'A student's dress shall not denote, represent or be deemed to be gang related, including but not limited to, bandanas, colors, flags or beads,'" Sekulow quoted.

"The school told him to take that (the rosary) off because it could be gang related," Sekulow stated.

"He said, 'Listen, I'm doing this for my uncle and my brother. I'm not doing this because I'm a member of a gang. Everyone knows I'm not a member of a gang,'" Sekulow quoted.

The ACLJ attorney added that Hosier had not been in trouble before.

"He's a good student. He's never been in any trouble. He's not a rabble rouser and he's not trying to start any controversy. He's not trying to start a religious trend. He only wanted to express his faith and honor his uncle and brother," Sekulow said.

Sekulow said this isn't the first time the Schenectady school system has been sued over the issue.

"In 2005 a 12-year-old girl (Raven Furbert) had family members serving in Iraq and she wore a red, white and blue beaded necklace and was told by the school to take it off," Sekulow said.

"She sued and the school had to settle out of court and that presumably means a monetary out of court settlement. The superintendent of the school district was an assistant superintendent then and he was named in the suit," Sekulow said.

"Now in 2010, Raymond Hosier starts wearing a rosary to school, purple beads, in honor and for some comfort for his brother who died two years ago and an uncle who passed away two and half weeks ago. He was close to his uncle. He decided to honor them and wear the rosary for comfort," Sekulow said.

Sekulow also explained the federal court's opinions on this issue go back to the Vietnam War era.

"In 1969, in the Tinker case, a very famous case, liberals and conservatives both cited, the Supreme Court said that students don't shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse gates," Sekulow said.

"Of course, schools can handle disruptive behavior, but it has to be clearly defined and it has to be clearly disruptive," Sekulow said.

"The 1969 Tinker case involved students in Des Moines, Iowa, wearing black armbands. The court ruled 7-2 in favor of the armbands saying that the bands were a valid form of student expression."

Gang-related clothing concerns were the basis of a 2007 Napa County, Calif., court case. The case involved 14-year-old Toni Kay Scott, who was sent home from Redwood Middle School for wearing knee-high socks with the Winnie-the-Pooh character Tigger on them.

California law allows schools to maintain dress codes, but the suit alleged that the policy was overly restrictive. The case ended with Napa County Superior Court Judge Raymond Guagagni's ruling in favor of Scott.

Judge Guagagni's opinion said that the 1969 Tinker case was the basis for his decision.

The Schenectady school district dress code policy also says that students may not wear sleepwear to school or wear coats inside school buildings unless authorized by a school district official.

Sekulow adds that he believes the district doesn't want to settle the issue "in a friendly way" and that Schenectady schools are preparing to go to court for the second time in five years over the dress code.

Schenectady school officials did not return any calls asking for comment.