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Flap over flag, hijab leads to suspension of Hernando student

Heather Lawrence, 16, was suspended from Springstead High School after telling a Muslim student to stand up during the Pledge of Allegiance.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Heather Lawrence, 16, was suspended from Springstead High School after telling a Muslim student to stand up during the Pledge of Allegiance.

SPRING HILL — Heather Lawrence didn't know the name of the girl with the Muslim head covering, or where she was from.

But as Lawrence walked by a classroom at Springstead High School on Wednesday, the 16-year-old junior did know one thing: The girl wasn't standing for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Lawrence, an JROTC member who plans to enlist in the Army next summer, says she was aghast.

"That's one of the most disrespectful things you can do," Lawrence recalled Friday. "Even the kids who are anarchists, who hate our government, still have respect to stand."

A few bells later, Lawrence was on her way to English class when she saw the girl wearing a hijab in the hallway. Lawrence confronted her.

She told her she should stand for the pledge. And, according to Lawrence's own account and a school referral on the incident, said, "Take that thing off your head and act like you're proud to be an American."

A teacher overheard the encounter. Now Lawrence is serving a five-day, out-of-school suspension, and her parents are considering legal action.

"You have someone in the States who is able to enjoy our educational and health care systems, yet it's okay for them to be disrespectful, and it's not okay for my daughter to speak her mind," said Mark Lawrence, Heather's father. "That's her First Amendment right. That's her freedom of speech."

Springstead principal Susan Duval said school officials stand behind the punishment. Heather Lawrence violated the district's policy against bullying and harassment, Duval said. She was disciplined not for telling the girl to stand, but for her other comments — comments that Duval called atrocious.

"It makes me ill," she said. "That is not what this school is about. These students should feel safe and secure here. We may have differences of opinion, but no student should have to tolerate harassment."

After the incident, Lawrence was asked by a school staffer why she confronted the girl. "She began to rant that she was enlisting and was going to Iraq and that basically because the girl looks Middle Eastern, that makes her an enemy because all Iraqis are Middle Eastern," according to the referral signed by assistant principal Stephen Crognale.

Lawrence denies she said that or feels that way.

"Terrorists, regardless of who they are, what color they are, are the enemy," she said.

School officials would not disclose the identity of the girl. Duval said she wasn't sure if the girl is new to Springstead or why she didn't stand for the pledge.

Lawrence said the girl did not respond to her and simply walked away. Duval said the girl did not complain to school officials. Efforts by the St. Petersburg Times to find and reach her were unsuccessful Friday.

As she served her first day of suspension, Lawrence admitted Friday that telling the girl to take off her hijab was "a little over the edge." Her father agreed she shouldn't have said it.

"It wasn't meant to be a racial comment, and I wasn't trying to bash her religion," she said. "I didn't expect her to say (the pledge). I just expect her to stand up for it. If she had a problem with what I said, I'd be happy to apologize to her."

Mark Lawrence says the district needs to be taken to task for putting words into his daughter's mouth. He hopes to reverse the suspension and says he's talked to a lawyer friend of the family.

"I didn't raise my daughters to be prejudiced," he said, adding that the family dines often with friends of Iranian descent.

Heather Lawrence has her own unpleasant pledge memory.

She spent six months in Mexico while her father worked a contracting job and was booted out of a private school for not saying the pledge to the Mexican flag. But that was in Spanish — a language she doesn't know — and so she stopped trying to fake it. And, she says, she still stood up.

Flaps over flag pledging have set legal precedent. A 17-year-old junior at Boynton Beach High School refused to stand for the pledge and was removed from class, prompting a lawsuit and a ruling last year by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court struck down a provision of Florida law requiring civilians to stand for the pledge.

Ramzy Kiliç, executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he was concerned by Heather Lawrence's apparent cultural insensitivity.

But he also said he was surprised to hear that a Muslim would not stand for the pledge. There is no tenet in the religion that encourages Muslims not to do so. "That's her right," Kiliç said. "I myself believe she should have stood."

Still, Kiliç said he was happy to hear that Lawrence was willing to say she was sorry.

"A public school reflects the demographics of America," he said. "We have to foster that, and one way to do that is for the girl to apologize. That should be the ultimate solution."

The hijab clearly made the girl a target, said Dr. Adel Eldin, a Brooksville cardiologist who practices in Spring Hill.

Eldin, who has been busy in August celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, said he hopes school officials will seize the incident as a teachable moment about his faith.

"If the principal would like to sponsor an educational night, I would be happy to talk to the kids," he said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431. Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report.

Flap over flag, hijab leads to suspension of Hernando student 08/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 1, 2009 5:01pm]

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