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Hernando student lied about seeing Muslim student sit during Pledge, officials say

SPRING HILL — The JROTC member at Springstead High School who said she confronted a Muslim student last week because the girl did not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance fabricated that part of the story, school officials said Monday.

Heather Lawrence, a 16-year-old junior at the school, has said she was walking by another homeroom Wednesday morning when she saw a girl with the traditional Muslim head scarf sitting during the pledge.

Later, Lawrence said she confronted the girl, told her she should stand during the pledge and, according to her own account and a school report, said, "Take that thing off your head and act like you're proud to be an American."

A teacher witnessed the confrontation and Lawrence was suspended for five days for violating the district's policy against bullying and harassment. The suspension has since been reduced to three days.

But Lawrence could not have seen what she said she saw, Springstead principal Susan Duval said Monday.

"This girl lied," Duval said. "I have confirmed with the homeroom teacher the young lady stood for the pledge."

The girl and her parents also insist she was standing, Duval said.

And Lawrence never left her own homeroom, according to her teacher, Duval said.

Duval said Lawrence claimed she was asked to take the homeroom attendance count to the office. But Duval said her homeroom teacher disputes that.

"She never left homeroom," Duval said.

"She's compounded the story as an explanation as to why she felt it was OK to make a very disparaging comment to this young lady," Duval said.

Mark Lawrence, reached by phone on Monday, defended his daughter.

"My daughter told me what she saw and I stand by what my daughter saw," Mark Lawrence said. "I think (school officials) are trying to do some damage control."

He noted that after a conference Monday, his daughter's suspension was reduced to three days. She will return to school Wednesday.

Duval said that's because school officials often reduce punishments when there has been a successful parent conference. Mark Lawrence refused last week to sign his daughter's referral. He did this morning, Duval said.

And no harsher punishment for lying? "I'm trying to get this resolved and move on," Duval replied.

After the incident, Lawrence was asked by a teacher 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, who says she plans to enlist in the Army, denied Friday she said that or feels that way. She told the St. Petersburg Times that telling the student to take off her hijab was a little "over the edge" and that she would consider apologizing.

That apology is also part of Lawrence's discipline, assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson said Monday.

"My understanding is there will be communication to iron this thing out," Jackson said.

The story, reported by the Times and other local media on Friday, went viral, prompting conservative bloggers to praise Lawrence for speaking her mind and bashing school officials for quelling her free speech rights.

Duval said the school has received calls from angry people who have "abused" her staff.

School officials would not release the identity of the Muslim student or any other facts about her. Duval did confirm the girl is new to Springstead this year.

Ahmed Bedier, president of the Human Rights Council and a personal friend of the family was relaying a request by the Times for comment this afternoon. But the family is reluctant to go on record with the media, he said.

On Saturday, the Muslim girl's father found his daughter reading online news stories about the incident and the comments from readers, Bedier said.

"She was crying," Bedier said. "She said, 'I didn't do anything wrong. Why are these people saying all these horrible things?'"

"To her, somebody made a mean comment and she just kept walking," Bedier said. She never expected any of this to happen."

The story is troublesome because it has stoked negative feelings toward Muslims among some Americans, Bedier said.

"There are some very known anti-Muslim blogs and Web sites and they're taking up this cause of Heather Lawrence," he said. This girl got caught bullying someone else, and to deflect it she's making it about patriotism and the flag.

Major Dennis Jolissaint of Springstead's JROTC program would not comment specifically on Lawrence's case this afternoon. But any JROTC member given out-of-school suspension is automatically barred from taking part in JROTC extracurricular activities for 60 days, Jolissaint said.

"We hold our students to a higher standard than the school population," he said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando student lied about seeing Muslim student sit during Pledge, officials say 08/31/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 1, 2009 4:40pm]

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