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War of words waged over Confederate flag petition

About 100 Tarpon Springs High School students had signed Krista Abram's petition to ban the Confederate flag at school before an assistant principal gave her a talking-to Tuesday.

This is a sensitive issue, he told her, and added that the school would rather just leave it alone. Go home, he said.

She did and hasn't been back since.

On Thursday, Abram, 16, and her petition were at home while she served a 10-day suspension for distributing "unauthorized material," according to a letter from the school. But the T-shirts with the stars and bars are still on campus.

"I definitely anticipated some kind of consequences for not getting the petition approved," the 16-year-old junior said. "But I think 10 days is harsh."

So does Paula Lopez, Abram's mother. A medical assistant who recently moved to Tarpon Springs from Pittsburgh, Lopez said she's especially sensitive to issues of racial discrimination because all three of her children are biracial. Incensed by the school's policy and her daughter's treatment, she plans to appeal her daughter's suspension.

"I felt that the whole thing was handled wrong," said Lopez, 37.

Tarpon Springs High School administrators declined to comment on Thursday. But they confirmed that assistant principal Wayne McKnight pulled Abram off the school bus to talk to her and then sent her home because of the petition she circulated.

Now a war of words has begun at the school over the Confederate flag, and the battle lines are blurry. Is the flag about pride or prejudice? Heritage or hatred?

"I never had to deal with this up North," Abram said. "To me, it's a symbol of racism."

Abram said she was shocked when she started school in August and noticed a classmate wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag. So she started asking questions.

When she didn't get answers from teachers and administrators, she decided to circulate a petition about the dress code.

Abram and her brother Shawn, a 14-year-old freshman, asked students to sign the petition during the school's lunch break Tuesday. They collected 94 signatures in favor of a ban on symbols that could be interpreted as discriminatory.

"What if we walked around with Nazi symbols on our shirts? Would that be allowed?" Abram asked on her petition.

Tarpon Springs High School principal Dennis Duda was out of town, but assistant principal Ruth Riel said the school adheres to School Board guidelines on student dress codes.

"Clothing has to be determined to be a disruption in the school for action to be taken," Riel said.

Asked whether parents or students had complained about Confederate flags at the school before Abram brought it up, Riel declined to comment.

She also declined to discuss Abram's suspension, saying only that administrators are investigating the matter. In response to questions, she referred a reporter to the student conduct code, which requires that principals review petitions before they are circulated.

Meanwhile, students had plenty to say Thursday.

Sophomore Jermeil Blanch, 16, said he signed the petition because, as an African-American, he finds the Confederate flag offensive.

"That's not right," Jermeil said of wearing the Confederate flag. "If it was like me wearing a shirt saying, "I hate rednecks,' I'd get in trouble."

Mark Giannulis, 16, disagrees with a blanket ban on the flag.

"If someone's going to wear a cross to school, then they should be allowed to wear the flag," Giannulis said. "There should be freedom of expression."

While student opinion on the flag is diverse, the student body is not. A little more than 6 percent of the school's 1,900 students are black, according to school district statistics gathered in August 2003.

That lack of diversity is something that has sometimes made Abram uncomfortable, she said. She acknowledges that she had a problem missing classes during her first semester last fall, but this is the first time she's been suspended, Lopez said.

A single mother, Lopez said her daughter was never given a hearing as required by school codes and she received written notification about the suspension only Thursday.

Under the district's code of student conduct, children are not allowed to wear "clothes or tattoos that show profanity, violence, sexually suggestive phrases or pictures." The school district has never issued a specific ban on displaying the Confederate flag or any other symbols.

"It's pretty much the (school) administration's call," district spokesman Ron Stone said.

Tarpon Springs High School is not the first Florida school to wrestle with the display of the Confederate flag.

In December, administrators at a Bradenton charter school issued a new dress code banning the Confederate flag on student T-shirts and other items.

In Hernando County, a Central High School student opted to stop wearing his Southern cross shirt after the school's principal banned the controversial symbol from the dress code in 2000.

_ Times staff writer Stephen Hegarty and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Candace Rondeaux can be reached at (727) 445-4181 or rondeauxsptimes.com.

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