SPRING HILL — Fervent patriots held Jennifer Lawrence up as a hero.
When her story broke last week, bloggers and online commenters praised the 16-year-old junior and JROTC member at Springstead High School for confronting a Muslim student for not standing during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Lawrence, however, fabricated that part of the story, school officials say.
"This girl lied," Springstead principal Susan Duval said Monday. "I have confirmed with the homeroom teacher the young (Muslim) lady stood for the pledge."
Lawrence 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 out of respect 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, Duval said, because the Muslim student was standing for the pledge. The Muslim student and her parents also insist she was standing, she said.
Lawrence never left her own homeroom, according to her teacher, Duval said.
"She's compounded the story as an explanation as to why she felt it was okay to make a very disparaging comment to this young lady," Duval said.
Mark Lawrence, reached by phone Monday, defended his daughter and her account.
"My daughter told me what she saw and I stand by what my daughter saw," he 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 Monday morning, Duval said.
And no harsher punishment for apparently lying?
"I'm trying to get this resolved and move on," Duval replied.
Mark Lawrence, who hinted at legal action last week, said Monday that the reduction in the suspension has satisfied him, though he still contends his daughter did nothing wrong.
After the incident, Heather 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 Friday, went viral, prompting some praise for Lawrence for speaking her mind and boos for school officials for quelling her free-speech rights. Others called her behavior appalling.
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 girl's family, said Monday he would relay a request by the Times for comment, but no one had called by deadline. The family is reluctant to go on the record with the media, Bedier said.
On Saturday, the Muslim girl's father found his daughter reading online news stories about the incident and the comments from readers, he 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 added. "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 well-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."
Maj. Dennis Jolissaint of Springstead's JROTC program would not comment specifically on Lawrence's case Monday. 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.
Duval said she hopes students take from the incident a deeper understanding of — and appreciation for — cultural diversity.
"Everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect," she said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.