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Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

What's the latest gang symbol? Try the rosary

Religion News Service
Albany, Ore.

Never did Jaime Salazar imagine that wearing a rosary-like crucifix to school would provoke a national stir.

But when Salazar, 14, and his 16-year-old friend Marco Castro were suspended recently for refusing to remove the religious beads because they were “gang-related,” it thrust the issue into the headlines and has triggered questions over the evolving role of rosaries in religion, fashion and street gangs.

For educators and public safety officials charged with blocking fluid gang trends, rosaries have become one more marker to track suspicious activity.

“It’s become part of the look,” said Victor Castro, a detective and school resource officer who leads gang-awareness training in Hillsboro, Ore. “They use it as a reminder of protection.”

Officials at South Albany High School said policy prevents them from offering details about the suspensions. “There’s more to the story, but because the boys are minors, we can’t talk about it,” said Jim Haggart, assistant to the local schools superintendent.

Salazar said he is not a gangster and does not dress like one. He knows exactly what a rosary is, he said, and that’s not what he was wearing. It was a baby blue, beaded crucifix that makes him think of his mother, who gave it to him, he said.

Salazar said his problems began in February when Principal Chris Equinoa asked him to put away the crucifix, which he was wearing as a necklace.

“He told me it was a rosary, and it was gang-related,” said Salazar, who now carries the crucifix in his pocket. “I told him, ‘No, it’s not a rosary. It’s a necklace and it’s Catholic.’ ”

When Equinoa asked him to go to the office, Salazar said he went home. Later, he received a letter notifying him he was suspended for five days for defiance and gang-related behavior.

His friend, Marco Castro, told the local newspaper that Equinoa approached him the same day about his rosary, a white string of beads with a cross and an image of the Virgin Mary. He put it away but wore it the next day, then refused to remove it. He was suspended for three days.

The suspension attracted much attention on television and online, but it is not the first of its kind. A similar case involving two students in New Caney, Texas, who were prohibited from wearing rosaries because they were considered gang-related, ended up in a court in 1997. The judge ruled in favor of the boys, calling the school policy vague.

David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said educators should proceed with caution. Their intentions may be valid, but they run the risk of violating students’ rights, he said. “When it comes to restricting any form of expression, school officials have a pretty high bar to cross,” he said. “They better have very specific evidence that’s more than just a hunch.”

Victor Castro, the detective who tracks gang activity, takes a more subtle approach with rosaries, striving to be sensitive about cultural and religious traditions.

“I say, ‘Do me a favor. Wear it inside your shirt close to your heart. There’s a bad element out there that uses it in a different way.’ ”

Esmeralda Bermudez writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

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