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Erasing individual values to counter gangs: Is it worth it?

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POSTED June 2, 2010 2:47 a.m.
It is open season on rosary beads in a growing number of school districts across the United States.

The reason: They are sometimes worn as gang symbols.

That is why a middle school in Albany, New York, sent home a Catholic seventh grader as his crime against campus decorum was wearing purple rosary beads in memory of his younger brother who died while clutching it after a bicycle accident.

Raymond Hosier, 13, was suspended for a week when he refused to take off the rosary beads or cover them with his shirt.

It is just the latest in a growing trend of zero tolerance toward rosary beads in public schools on the pretext they might be gang symbols.

A school’s concern about safety is admirable but when will it stop?

We are already telling kids in many schools they can’t wear certain reds or blues for fear they may invoke gang violence. Compromising clothing choice in the name of safety and peace in our schools is one thing. Now we are going as far as to ban rosary beads because some gang members wear them.

Where this will all end up if taken to its logical conclusion is our kids may ultimately end up going to school without wearing a stitch of clothing.

The problem here is two-fold. How can we as a society allow gangs to continually dictate community standards for want of a better term and how would a school treat a symbol of a non-Christian religion that may be adopted as a gang symbol?

Muslims wear taqiyajh caps to emulate Mohammed. What if some gang started wearing such caps. Are they going to be banned as well when worn by legitimate Muslims in school?

And what if gangs start wearing crosses as a sign of membership?

We have - by default and not design - created two sets of rules for passive religious symbols in our public schools. One is for what is considered mainstream religion in this country – Christianity – and the other is for religions that happen to be in the minority in this nation and more specifically that of immigrants. In trying to be sensitive to the rights of one group we become insensitive to the rights of others.

It is much like the debate over a student wearing a shirt with an American flag design on Cinco de Mayo. Would it be equally offensive if a foreign flag shirt was worn by a student on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday?

The door should swing both ways but in most cases it doesn’t. Instead of treating rights as being equal for all citizens, we have elevated the rights of those not perceived as main stream.

To ban all things symbolic – religious and otherwise – on a wholesale basis in schools out of fear of offending someone is the equivalent of trying to make two wrongs a right.

Yes, the stark reality is that there are kids who get beaten up – and even killed – because they wear the wrong color of clothes even though they are not gang members. You can’t fault school administrators who are struggling to maintain a safe learning environment.

That said there has to be a better way to keep the peace than to continually chop away at everyone else’s reasonable rights when it comes to countering gang members.

In the case of the 13-year-old thrown out of school for wearing rosary beads, the American Center for Law and Justice is taking up his case. That is all fine and good but it still won’t address the more pressing issue regardless of how the courts rule. That issue, in a nutshell, is how do you balance reasonable freedom of expression with a need to keep the peace in school?

Perhaps we never will find that middle ground.

Not because we don’t want to , but we can’t afford to do so.

Making individual rights completely subservient to tyranny – in this case the fear and violence caused by gangs – is wrong.

Yet who doesn’t want our schools to be safe?
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