Rev. Valerie's Reveries

This blog contains personal reflections from Unitarian Universalist minister Valerie Mapstone Ackerman.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

When is a rosary not a rosary? When it could be a gang symbol.

Public school officials in Schenectady believe they have a gang problem and they believe they can quell gangs by regulating accessories and items of clothing worn by children. No caps or hats of any kind may be worn indoors. No display of handkerchiefs or scarves, no wearing of beads, no obvious religious symbols. Those are the rules and no exceptions are accepted. Period. Last year my granddaughter wore a hair clip shaped like a tiny hat and was made to remove it. Laughable when you think about it. An iconic hat as well as an actual hat is considered dangerous in the 6th grade.

Regulating symbolic clothing (beads, hats etc.) does nothing to make Schenectady schools safe or serious learning environments. Gangs are not effectively deterred from recruiting new members through regulating school-aged children’s garb. No matter which rules the school imposes, determined gang members develop a new set of images to suit their purpose. One gang now uses Sponge Bob Squarepants as their symbol. Others use athletic teams or Disney characters.

The media have been reporting on a specific case in which a middle schooler has taken to wearing a rosary as a necklace (rosaries have beads, thus COULD be a gang symbol). Rosary Boy has reportedly said that it makes him feel protected and close to two dead relatives to wear the rosary over his clothing. He could not be persuaded to wear the rosary under his clothes. His parents support his desire to wear the rosary as he sees fit. So does a right-wing civil liberties foundation from Michigan—they have swept in to protect the youngster’s religious rights.

While the Rosary Boy and his family are not Catholic and thus do not feel compelled to use the Catholic rosary in the same way a Catholic might, they still feel that it expresses something profoundly important to them. Who is to argue with them? Religion is in the heart of the believer, not in the eye of the beholder. If the kid feels tied to this symbol as a way of feeling a deep connection to dead relatives, who is to say that his commitment is invalid? Developmentally it is entirely appropriate for a child of that age to experience a concrete connection to god through a physical item. If he thinks his relatives are with god and believes this rosary connects him to them (the dead and god), I think we should all support his right to wear the rosary.

The official position of zero tolerance for potential gang symbols is bunk. Schenectady schools tolerate all sorts of bad behavior through impotent inaction when it matters most (trust me, I’ve been on the front lines of this for two years of watching my granddaughter experience severe bullying). The zero tolerance is directed solely at symbols rather than actions. If it looks like a duck squash it, but if it ACTS like a duck, well then the duck’s right to be a duck must be protected. It is facile to write down a rule about clothing and then enforce it to the letter, but how do you write down a rule about behavior that can’t be abrogated by nuance and he said/she said arguments. Enforcing civil behavior is simply more difficult than enforcing symbols, so the schools go with the easy path.

What looks like a religious argument, it turns out, is really just an argument about a child whose parents back up his right to be an individual in the midst of an institution that fears groups. We tested this out. My granddaughter began openly wearing and flaunting religious symbols in the same school as the Rosary Boy. If I had a rosary handy, she might have worn that to test our theory, but alas, all I had were Unitarian Universalist Flaming Chalice symbols. No one even noticed. So it seems that the more obscure your religion, the more you can flagrantly show it off! This is NOT about religious symbols.

There is a tendency for public schools to follow a path of adamant consistency when deeper understanding would pay off bigger dividends. Rosary Boy misses his dead relatives. The more exercised the school became the more determined the parents became. The parents will win this fight with the backing of well-funded religious zealots. There is no doubt about it. But what becomes lost along the way is common sense. Stopping a boy from grieving his own way will not stop gangs from operating in the school. Is anyone paying attention to common sense in Schenectady schools? Anyone? Anyone at all?


  • At June 10, 2010 10:44 PM, OpenID joylightning said…

    I feel for school administrators who are trying to do their best. I know they are trying to figure out how to navigate this dangerous place. But then again. One size fits all, never works. Zero Tolerance is almost always stupid and useless. Your test proves that the administration there does not know enough about religious expression to be able to enforce this. I think that Rosary boy will find that he wins this fight.

    I wonder what the administration can do to stem the tide of gangs without making silly one size fits all rules that are unenforceable. I hope they are more creative than me at solving this.

  • At August 20, 2010 9:58 PM, Anonymous Valerie said…

    Update: A new superintendent is in place and he changed the rules. No more specific bans on specific articles of clothing or accessories. Instead, gang behavior will be addressed directly. AND he instituted stronger consequences for all forms of bullying! Love this new guy!


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