ALBANY, Ore. – A pair of Albany teenagers suspended for "gang-related behavior" because they were wearing crucifixes say they were only wearing gifts from their mothers.
Jaime Salazar, 14, his friend Marco Castro, 16, were suspended from South Albany High School recently after they refused to put away the crucifixes they were wearing around their necks.
Salazar said Principal Chris Equinoa saw his necklace and told him to put it away. "I was like, why?" Salazar said. "He says it's related to gangs."
Salazar said he argued and was sent to the office. Instead, he went home. Later, he received a note saying he had been suspended for five days for "defiance and gang-related behavior."
Castro, a junior, was suspended for three days after refusing to take off a string of milky rosary beads, with a crucifix and a tiny picture of the Virgin Mary, that he was wearing around his neck. His mother gave it to him, he said.
Equinoa said religious items are not banned. But, as principal, he reserves the right to ask a student to remove, or cover up, any item he feels could indicate gang affiliation even a crucifix.
The school district backs him up.
Principals have the latitude to determine the difference between genuine religious observance and gang symbols, said Jim Haggart, executive assistant to the superintendent.
"We're not trying to squash any religious symbols and we're not trying to get into religion, but we are trying to get into student safety, and that's what we're really concerned about," Haggart said.
Equinoa said he could not comment on specific student discipline issues. But he said any directive to a student to remove or cover any item, religious or otherwise, would not be made without other information.
Bud Bunce, spokesman for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Portland, said his office has received no reports of gangs using crucifixes or rosaries to identify themselves. The archdiocese represents Catholic churches in Oregon west of the Cascades, from the California border to the Washington border.
But Albany police say fellow officers in Salem and Hillsboro have been contending with crucifixes and rosaries as gang markers for the past several years. Their appearance at South could be an indication that the markers are moving in, said Officer Ken Fandrem, who leads a gang task force that meets monthly.
"They put their gang colors on the rosaries and claim they're religious," Fandrem said. "This is the first time I've dealt with it [here]."
Equinoa said Fandrem led a training in October on gang identifiers for staff members from South Albany, Calapooia Middle School and the alternative Albany Options School. Religious items were among the possible markers mentioned.
Students specifically weren't told about the markers "because they morph," Equinoa said. "You can never get a solid target."
Formerly an administrator in Southern California, Equinoa said he's familiar with the pain and fright that gangs can inflict on a school.
"We don't want to see it get to that point," he said.