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Suspension to be reduced in flag flap

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Pinellas County school administrators expect that Krista Abram's 10-day suspension from Tarpon Springs High School will be reduced, superintendent Howard Hinesley said Friday.

Abram, 16, a junior, was suspended this week after circulating an unauthorized petition that called for a ban on students wearing or displaying the Confederate flag at school.

On Friday, Tarpon Springs High principal Dennis Duda called Abram's mother to schedule a meeting to discuss the suspension.

Abram's mother, Paula Lopez, who spent much of the day being interviewed by local TV stations, said she couldn't meet with Duda on Friday but planned to do so Monday.

"He said he would like Krista to be back in school," Lopez said. Duda did not return a call from the Times Friday.

Hinesley said he didn't talk to Duda and said the decision of whether to reduce the suspension and by how much would rest with the principal. But the superintendent did review the paperwork on Abram's suspension, and administrators asked Duda to consider whether the circumstances matched the length of the suspension.

"I just know from discussions that I've had (that) I'm led to believe that the suspension will be reduced," Hinesley said. He said he checked into the case because when he read about it in Friday's newspaper he thought: "something's missing."

"Our principals know that students have a right to petition and do surveys and things like that," he said. "It didn't exactly add up."

But he added, while students can circulate petitions, "you don't have a right to do it under your own terms."

Both sides seem to agree that that's what happened.

Abram, who is biracial, initially sought Duda's approval to do a survey or petition and he referred her to the faculty member who ran the school's multicultural program. She thought that effort fizzled out, so she later decided to circulate a petition asking for a ban on symbols that could be interpreted as discriminatory.

The second time, she did not get Duda's approval for the petition, which is required by the school code of conduct. Administrators said she asked someone in the front office to make copies of the petition and was told she would need the principal to sign off on it. She went to another office, got the petition copied and began collecting signatures, administrators said.

Once the petition was in circulation Tuesday, students started talking and an unspecified number did not return to class, Hinesley said.

"It actually created a disturbance on the campus," school district spokesman Ron Stone said.

Hinesley said he wasn't second-guessing how the matter was handled because "I wasn't there." But he noted that on a large campus "things can get out of hand really quick" when students are not following directions and not going to class.

This is a case where there are issues both of freedom of expression and sensitivity and tolerance, Hinesley said.

Asked what he thought of wearing clothing emblazoned with the Confederate flag, Hinesley said, "Personally, I don't think a T-shirt like that should be worn. But it doesn't matter what I think. There are lots of things that people wear that I don't like."

He elaborated, saying, "what my personal opinion is or other people's personal opinions are is irrelevant unless it gets to the point where you can't manage the school . . . and it rests with the principal to make that determination."

The school district's code of student conduct prohibits "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.

In the past, students who have worn symbols that include swastikas or T-shirts bearing slogans that offend some religions have been successfully referred to multicultural school programs to work things out, Hinesley said.

In this case, Hinesley said he hopes this leads the student body at Tarpon Springs High School to discuss not just the issue of the flag, but issues of expression and expressions that offend people. He hopes that students decide to be sensitive to others who are offended by the flag.

Abram said she hoped to return to school soon.

"I don't want to miss my work," she said. "I've been doing very well this semester and (missing) 10 days is going to put me behind. It's going to be very hard to catch up."

Abram said she understood that there should be a consequence for not going through the administration to circulate the petition.

Abram said she still hopes to see the flag banned from school grounds, but she has no plans to violate school policy again.

"I'm not sure I still want to make the school the focal point of this," she said. "Whatever proper procedures I have to take, I will."