South Lake Tahoe students, school clash over rosaries
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Students with signs began to swarm into the South Tahoe High School quad Friday morning, infiltrating the already growing, milling crowd.
Along with sections of the Bill of Rights, their signs also proclaimed other opinions:
“Together We Stand”;
“We Are One”;
“Pick on someone your own Color”;
“Does wearing a ROSARY make me a Gangster?”
Chants of “united we stand,” began to break out sporadically as students marched 50 feet back and forth along the quad.
On Monday and Tuesday, school officials began questioning students who were wearing rosaries to school. School officials had been told by the South Lake Tahoe Police Department that rosaries were being used as a gang symbol, principal Ivone Larson said.
“We were worried for the safety of our students,” Larson said.
On Wednesday, school officials said a group of 15 students – predominantly male and predominantly Latino – stood along a fence where a school resource officer (a South Lake Tahoe Police officer) typically walks by. When the police officer walked by, the students began posturing and pulled out their rosaries, school officials said.
“It was an affront, a gesture that was planned and coordinated,” said Assistant Principal Dennis Sarosik.
A majority of those students had prior discipline reports, Sarosik said.
The students were then taken one by one to speak with the resource officer, Scott Wilson. Students also had their rosaries taken and their photos were put on a computer for future reference, Larson said.
The rosaries will be given to the student’s guardian after that person comes in for a conference with school officials, Sarosik said. All the guardians have been notified and two have come into the school, he added.
Oscar Rosas, 16, was one of those students who had his rosary taken away Monday.
“They told me to ‘take off that rosary,'” Rosas said at Friday’s demonstration while holding a sign that said, “Does wearing a ROSARY make me a Gangster?”
Rosas said twice during an interview that his rosary was not a gang symbol. He said it was his grandmother’s rosary and he wore it to show respect for his religion.
“We wear it to show our pride as Catholics,” Rosas said. “We wear it out of respect.”
Another student, Melissa Savic, 16, is also a Catholic who keeps a rosary hanging in her vehicle. She said school officials did not question her about her rosary and did not take it away.
“It’s a family thing and a religious thing,” Savic said. “I don’t use it for decoration. I feel that would be disrespectful.”
By Thursday afternoon word had spread around South Lake Tahoe High through text messaging and Facebook – there would be a demonstration 9 a.m. Friday, in the quad.
“We heard about teachers taking away the rosaries, but the way they were selecting students was something we weren’t OK with,” said Sarah Breisacher, 17, who helped organize the demonstration. “It was racial profiling and that’s what we were having problems with.”
Friday morning, a throng of students showed up holding signs and chanting.
“We were trying to give those kids a voice,” Breisacher said.
While Breisacher said she does know some students who use the rosary as a gang symbol, she knew other students who she said were unfairly targeted.
“They were taking it away from students based on their race or what they looked like and some people were getting falsely accused and they had no one to listen to them,” Breisacher said.
School officials said they were pleased with how peaceful the demonstration was, Larson said.
“We were impressed to see the students comraderie,” Larson said. “It was really welcomed.”
School officials said they did not only look at the students’ color when they confiscated the rosaries.
“It is very difficult for us so we always look at more than one factor,” Larson said. “We don’t consider it racial profiling.”
School officials and police officers take a number of factors into consideration, said Nick Carlquist, a police officer with the South Lake Tahoe Police Department. A previous record, a “mad dogging” attitude while wearing the rosary and a violent or gang-related activity while wearing the rosary play into the decision, Carlquist said.
“I have had 20 or so validated gang members in Tahoe tell me that rosaries are a sign of gang involvement,” Carlquist said.
The symbol is used by gangs because it can bring up freedom of religion or freedom of expression issues, Carlquist said.
“We’re not saying that gangsters are not religious or have no freedom of religion, but when they are using them to intimidate the public we have to be aware,” he said.
Students are asked to wear their rosaries on the inside of their clothing and wearing a rosary is not prohibited on school grounds, Sarosik said.
“If a student is wearing them on the outside of their clothes we might inform them it could be a safety issue,” he said.
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