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Two words bring suspension, then student's dad files suit

They were two words, uttered by a teenage school boy and overheard by an Asian-American teacher.

"Ching chong."

St. Petersburg Catholic High School suspended the 11th-grader for five days after concluding it was an ethnic slur.

Now the teen's father, David Farneski, has filed a lawsuit alleging the suspension was improper and saying it defamed the character of his 16-year-old son, who is not named in the suit.

Farneski is asking the court to overturn the punishment, which he says dropped his son's grade point average and ruined his chances of entering a prestigious university.

The boy "has suffered mental anguish, loss of capacity for enjoyment of life, and a loss of future earning capacity," according to the lawsuit, filed last month in Pinellas County Circuit Court.

The suit seeks unspecified damages exceeding $15,000 from the school, assistant principal Michael Shelby and the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which operates the 700-student school on Ninth Avenue N.

The case underscores a major difference between public and private schools.

Pinellas and Hillsborough public school officials said it would be unusual for a student to be suspended for a week for a one-time racial slur.

Discipline at Catholic schools often is harsher than in public schools, said Barbara Keebler, a spokeswoman with the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington, D.C.

"Parents choose Catholic schools because they want a values-added, character education for their children," Keebler said. "That is a priority parents place on Catholic education."

According the lawsuit, this is what happened:

The boy was in a classroom with two friends Sept. 29, unaware that the teacher was within earshot. Another student urged the teen to say "ching chong."

He looked around and said the words. The teacher entered the room and took the boy to the office, where the student wrote a letter of apology without prompting.

Both sides agree it was an isolated incident, but the school considered it harassment. The lawsuit says the punishment was the worst possible short of expulsion.

But Frederick Higham, the school's attorney, said the punishment fit the offense.

"I think one of the reasons students attend Catholic schools is for the discipline," he said. "This appears to be a complaint because the school meted out discipline according to its student handbook."

The boy's father and attorney could not be reached for comment.

The boy's mother and the school's principal declined to comment, as did history teacher Todd Maxwell.

Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

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