Monday, August 31, 2009

ROTC Student Suspended For Telling Muslim To Respect The Flag

Heather Lawrence loves being in JROTC, loves her Marine Corps dad and loves her country. On Wednesday, anger was the prevailing feeling in her heart when she noticed a student in another classroom had refused to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. She also refused to recite it. Heather, a junior at Springstead High School, glanced at the other students in the room, all of whom appeared uncomfortable, she said. She saw her later in the day between class periods and told her, "Take that thing off your head and act like you're proud to be an American." The student, whom Lawrence could not identify, was wearing a hijab, a head scarf or garment traditionally worn by Muslim women. A teacher overheard Heather's statement and told two other teachers. The incident made its way to Assistant Principal Steve Crognale, who called the 16-year-old into his office Friday morning, she said. He made her wait outside while he called her father, Mark Lawrence. Crognale told him the school was going to suspend his daughter for five days. "I said, 'That is absolutely ridiculous,'" recalled Lawrence, who would not repeat the expletives used during the phone conversation. "I thought it was very unfair." He asked Crognale to explain his justification for suspending his daughter. "He said it was based on the grounds that she made a threat," said Lawrence, who threw up his arms and shook his head. He sat in his living room across from his daughter, who was dressed in her U.S. Army-issued uniform. She plans to attend basic training in the summer, return to Springstead for her senior year and pursue a career in the military. Crognale, who did not return a message seeking comment, claimed the school's written policy allowed him to suspend her for up to 10 days if he so chose, Lawrence said. When Heather's irate father pressed on and asked him to explain how her statement could be interpreted as a threat, Crognale "backed off" and said his daughter's statement "caused mental duress" for the student, he said. That student never reported the incident, Lawrence said. He conceded his daughter should have refrained from telling her to remove her hijab. Heather was less emphatic. "I wish I didn't say, 'Take that thing off your head,'" she said. "Or maybe I shouldn't have said it loud enough for the teacher to hear it." Her father, a former U.S. Marine, said he and his family have friends who are Iranian and African-American. It is a household that has sworn off racism of any kind, he said. "The student should not have said that," said Ramzy Kilic, the executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Affairs. "If she had said, 'Why didn't you stand for the Pledge and act like an American?' that would have been a more-appropriate reaction." The Lawrence family lived in Cancun, Mexico, for six months in 2004. Both Heather, who was 12 at the time, and her sister attended a school where Spanish was the first language.
Mark Lawrence thinks it's "absolutely ridiculous" that his daughter Heather has been suspended after telling another student wearing a Muslim head covering to "Take that thing off your head and act like you're proud to be an American" for refusing to stand or recite the Pledge of Allegiance in class.
The students stood and recited their country's pledge. Heather and her sister stood, but did not speak because they didn't know the language, she said. Both of them were expelled from the school, Heather said. "They were in a third-world country and they had to honor their culture," her father said. "People don't have to do that here." The original punishment issued by Crognale was five days. Mark Lawrence was under the impression Friday morning he had talked him down to three days. He returned to the school at 12:30 p.m. to pick up the paperwork and was told the original punishment still stood. Heather Lawrence would have to remain at home for five school days because neither she nor her father would sign the agreement form. They refused to do so out of protest, they said. No threat was made. They insisted the school violated her First Amendment rights. Lawrence has been suspended at least twice prior to Friday. She was in the bathroom while another student smoked a cigarette a few feet away. A teacher searched her, found no contraband, but the school still suspended her, she said. The second time occurred last year, when she missed some classes because of her JROTC commitments. She said she got permission from all of her teachers to miss class that day. One of her teachers asked a student to go look for her. When she was not found, she reported her as an unexcused absence. She was suspended again. "At Springstead, the answer to everything is to kick you out of school," Heather said. On the agreement form that she and her father refused to sign, Crognale wrote, "The student yelled at another student in the hallway to take off her head covering because this is America." He went on to write she had begun to "rant" during a conversation with another teacher. She was going to Iraq and because the girl "looked Middle Eastern that makes her an enemy," Crognale stated. Lawrence said she never said those words to any teacher or to anyone else. The only Springstead employee she talked to about the incident prior to her suspension was Crognale and one of the school's coaches. In an apparent reference to her previous suspensions, Crognale also wrote, "Heather had promised to change her behavior this year." A call to Principal Susan Duvall was not returned Friday. It is the second time in less than three months that Springstead has been involved in a First Amendment controversy. School administrators made last year's valedictorian rewrite her graduation speech because they felt it painted the school in a negative light. The student agreed to rewrite it, but argued the school was being unreasonable and claimed at least one administrator threatened her. The story received national attention. Heather's suspension means she might miss up to 18 weeks of JROTC activities, including a military ball and some program-sponsored community service. "That really stinks because it is the only thing I do in school," she said. She said her friends, relatives, fellow JROTC students and even a few school staffers were "absolutely livid" she was suspended over her comments. "I'm not one to be a racist," Heather said.