A teenager who took a sign reading "If you love our nation, stop illegal immigration" to school said she was hurt after being swarmed by angry classmates, and administrators said Tuesday they have suspended three students involved in the scuffle.
"It's disappointing that it happened," Athens school district superintendent Fred Hayes said. "It does not surprise me with the political nature of this issue."
Melanie Bowers, 13, brought the sign to Athens Middle School on Friday as part of a class project on political activism. Each child was assigned to pick an issue and prepare a poster supporting a position.
Hayes said she was showing the sign in the hallway when a group of students tried wresting it away.
J.R. Bowers, the girl's father, said Melanie suffered scratch marks along her neck, face and arms. He said she also had a swollen jaw.
Bowers said as many as 20 students surrounded his daughter in the hallway, and Hayes said others may have hurled verbal insults. The poster was ultimately destroyed by other students.
"She was like a zebra on her arm," Bowers said of the bruises. "She believes they were intentionally trying to hurt her."
The three students given in-school suspension are Hispanic, Hayes said. Bowers is white. Although the school has video surveillance, Hayes said the incident occurred in a blind spot out of camera range but no punches were thrown.
The Athens Daily Review and Tyler television station KLTV reported the story Monday.
Hayes said that since local media first reported the story in Athens, a city of 12,000 about 70 miles south of Dallas, the district has received e-mails from far away.
He said some messages are prefaced with sympathy for Bowers, but go on to say that the other students "are American citizens just like I am, and just like you are."
"Some of these people are irrational in some of the e-mails that they've been sending me about these young people," Hayes said.
Nearly 50 percent of students in the Athens school district are white and about 34 percent are Hispanic, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Hayes said the class project was not appropriate for middle school students. He said the immigration issue has become so politicized and polarizing that "it's much more than illegal now. It just becomes sinister and evil."
Bowers agreed that the project shouldn't have been given to an eighth-grade class.
"The night before she had this due, she started telling me about this assignment," Bowers said. "I looked at her and said, 'This is a bad idea. This is going to go south real quick."'
Bowers said he is holding his daughter out of school for a week until attention surrounding the scuffle calms down. Hayes said school officials are continuing to investigate to see if others were involved.